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Parents Blog

Susan Boyd blogs on USYouthSoccer.org every Monday.  A dedicated mother and wife, Susan offers a truly unique perspective into the world of a "Soccer Mom". 

 

Professionally Speaking

Susan Boyd

While watching the National League Championship game Wednesday night, the commentators began discussing the St. Louis Cardinals third baseman David Freese. Apparently he became so burned out by baseball that he quit after high school. Eventually he decided to try playing at a junior college, and then he transferred to a Division I school. By the time he was offered a professional contract he was ready to recommit to the sport he had once abandoned.
 
The discussion then moved to a more general criticism of the intensity of youth sports overall, and baseball in particular. These experts spoke directly to the notion that if a child isn't identified as a youth player then he or she has no chance of becoming a pro. They called that idea hogwash. These former professional players argued that youth participants also need to be kids. While I can talk about not overwhelming our children with continual competitive sports, most people might not accept my admonishments since my only credentials are soccer mom. But I'm not alone.
 
Tim Keown of ESPN.com wrote a column on August 24, 2011 that directly addresses this issue. He cites the problems with try outs at ages as young as eight to weed out kids and build a formidable team. For what? To win! And somehow winning is supposed to magically translate into improved skills, strong interest in the game, and growth into a top-rated player at the older ages. As Keown points out, we have gone crazy trying to place our preteen players on teams that offer professional coaches, intense competition, travel, and even year-round play. We live in fear that our kids will miss out on some significant connection that would lead them to a professional contract. We want to be sure that we have greased the wheels as well as we can. But the truth is that for kids under the age of 13, it isn't their athleticism, but their physical maturity that dictates their abilities. If you have a late bloomer, then he or she will probably have trouble getting into these "elite" programs until they catch up. On the other hand, the early bloomer may get onto top teams for many years, but as she is passed up by other players, she may find herself suddenly cut from the same teams where she used to be a star.
 
Sandy Henshaw (Cummings,) an All-American college basketball player and now a youth coach, didn't start playing competitive basketball until age 12. She states:
"The main ingredient to success is practice and experience. There is no substitute for that. But that practice can be attained in your own backyard and most of the time in quality rec leagues locally. Of course, there is a point where good athletes will only get better by improving the quality of players around them. But that would be rare for an 8 year old."
 
She isn't the only significant sports success story who waited until an older age before entering their highly competitive sport. Basketball player Tim Duncan didn't start playing until 9th grade. Olympic bobsledder Emily Azevedo entered the sport when she was 23 after she watched the 2006 Torino games and decided to give it a try, making the 2010 Olympic team. Johnny Weir didn't start figure skating until he was 12, an age at which youth skaters are expected to already be proficient and entering Junior Championship competitions.
 
Some models of player development for sports like swimming, tennis, gymnastics, and soccer argue that players have to start at a very young age. Overseas soccer players are nurtured from an early age and brought into professional clubs to develop at the exclusion of other sports and even academics, and then they are cut, trained, or sold. Because the U.S. wants to become equally competitive with European and South American players, soccer professionals are attempting to duplicate some of this development model used throughout the world. Unfortunately it feeds directly into the American obsession to succeed. With local clubs, for-profit soccer camps and professional pundits arguing for early development and offering "elite," "select," "competitive" and "next level" training programs, parents can agonize over missing out on opportunities. If programs were truly developing players, then starting young would have a definite advantage. But given the number of players who don't have a good first touch, don't know how to receive a ball on the chest and drop it to their feet, don't know how to play with both feet, and don't know how to trap a ball, our early development is failing. Kids play games and get rewarded for scoring, but don't get equally rewarded for execution of skills.
 
This then begs the question: What should I do for my good soccer athlete? Find a great program which focuses on skills development, mental preparation, fitness, and team tactics. Winning should come a distant fifth to these factors. This is no easy task since most clubs live and die on their win/loss record. But the emphasis at the preteen ages should be on development rather than winning. Development doesn't require that a team be stacked with all the biggest and fastest kids. A club which puts equal emphasis on all youth players understands that young players ebb and flow based on growth spurts, mental toughness, and commitment to the sport. Youth soccer has moved to a development model with small-sided games until U-12 and less emphasis on league competition until the players are teenagers. Nevertheless, clubs will attempt to play teams up a year or two to give them "good competition" and a feeling of being in an "elite" group. While it may sell memberships in the soccer club, it's not the best for true player development where the focus is on individual skills not on team success.
 
As parents, we need to look past the smoke screen of titles, wins, and promises. Taking kids to competitions outside the state and even across the country before they are old enough to need deodorant is ridiculous. Saying that they will benefit from top competition ignores the fact that they are playing against other 8, 9, or 10 year olds. It's not as if they suddenly grabbed the brass ring and were going one on one with David Beckham. Save your money for when it really matters. Wait until your child has as much invested in playing at a top level as you do. They can't possibly understand what committing to a sport means until they have the mental faculties to place that experience in the context of their lives. Until they do, give them exposure to lots of sports, arts, and fun experiences. Provide them with the support they need, but don't go to extremes. You don't need to keep up with the Joneses in order to have your child succeed later in life at sports, academics, and friendships. Enjoy the few years you have when they are still naïve, silly, and open to new adventure. If they are strong athletes, they will find their athletic niche and succeed, hopefully with the same joy they had when they were falling on the field and making goals in their own net.
 

Well Grounded

Susan Boyd

Kids and gravity have an affinity one for the other. A gaggle of five year olds dribbling towards the goal never fail to tangle feet and indelicately land in a pile. Then out of the spaghetti comes one foot pushing the ball into the goal. They all rise, wipe their hands and begin again. Their resilience is amazing. Maybe they don't get hurt because they are so close to the ground. Maybe they have extra padding, although I have plenty of padding and get hurt every time I fall. No matter the reason, kids run, fall, get up and run again as if they have super balls in their pants.
 
Most young players treat soccer as a contact sport. They love to jostle, push, wrestle, and tackle. This roughhousing becomes an important aspect of playing the game. While we would love for our children to glide effortlessly onto the pitch, weave their way spectacularly down the field, and fire a shot directly into the center of the net, the scene looks much different. They arrive on the turf, greeting one another with slaps and giggles or a friendly hug and tackle. Someone actually puts a foot on the ball, but not necessarily in the right direction. While the adults gesticulate wildly to get the team back on track, someone notices something interesting on the ground and bends over to examine it. Another player, watching the parents, trips over his teammate and lands face first in the grass. Most of the players run to see what the pile-up is all about, while one lone dribbler takes the ball and scores – in the wrong net. Everyone jumps up and down, cheering until they all tumble onto the earth.
 
Some players believe that landing on the ground is part of the process. Bryce used to kick the ball and then fall on his rear end. Every single kick ended with a flop. He wouldn't dribble because he couldn't do it from the ground. When we asked why he fell, he answered, ""Because it's fun."" I saw a game recently where one adventurous player had obviously seen a bicycle kick goal. He would take the ball, throw it in the air and then attempt to flip himself and kick it. When the coach tried to explain that he couldn't touch the ball with his hands, the player burst into tears. So everyone agreed that if the ball came close to him he could pick it up for his fancy play. I've watched kids slide across a muddy field after scoring a goal, which happens twenty times in a game for five and six year old strikers. Kids will fall down for no apparent reason perhaps because the earth's magnetic pull is too strong for them. Kids will fall down and discover hidden treasure among the blades of grass. And kids will definitely fall down if falling will insure a mess.
 
Parents would do well to stock up on stain remover, bleach, and band-aids, since, yes, occasionally a fall results in a boo-boo. Hitting the ground running has a far more literal translation for the youngest soccer players. Despite the mud, the grass stains, and the cuts and bruises, we can't ask the kids to stop. The helter-skelter nature of the game appeals to young fans. They can play an unbridled hour of running, jumping, and falling, all of which have an equal part in the fun. Chances for any major injury are minimal, so the opportunity to behave like wild horses has to be respected. This abandon has no gender and no limits. Girls love having permission to act rowdy and muck around in the goo just like the boys. Pretty pink shorts and socks can come home from practice looking as gritty and brown as any self-respecting mud pie can look. 
 
If you haven't experienced the falling of autumn, then you'll certainly enjoy it come spring. April showers will bring May flowers and weeks of laundry. But watching how much joy these tiny players have cavorting and falling, it's difficult to deny them the explosion of letting loose completely. While soccer eventually must become a game of finesse and skill, it also needs to be a game of fun. And apparently part of that fun comes from making contact with the ground in dozens of interesting ways. The next time you see your child or your child's friend hitting the ground and laughing, laugh with them. The day will come soon enough when kids won't want to be on the ground, especially in a soccer game. Right now, for many of them, it's the only place they want to be when on the field. While we can worry that they aren't getting the point of soccer, they are convinced they have it all figured out. You can't buy that kind of confidence even if it's being exercised on the ground level.
 

Survivor

Susan Boyd

I love "The Amazing Race." Other than Fox Soccer and a few other TV shows, this would have to be my companion on a desert island. So imagine my delight when the show premiered last Sunday and one of the contestants was a familiar face, Ethan Zohn. Some of you may know Ethan from "Survivor" where he was the winner of the third season, Survivor: Africa. I don't watch "Survivor" but I learned of Ethan through his soccer playing and his founding of "Grassroot Soccer." Ethan was a goalkeeper at Vassar and played for the United Soccer League and in Zimbabwe for their Highlanders F.C. He has done soccer commentating and hosting over the years, so you may have seen him on Fox Soccer or MSG.
 
I think of Ethan often when I see my own sons working on their soccer. While Ethan did live the dream of playing college and professional soccer, it was how he parlayed that interest and success into something more significant. We parents want our children to achieve, but we also want them to develop into adults with integrity and honor. Most kids won't play soccer much beyond their youth experience. Therefore, that time should be spent joyfully benefitting from the important essentials of youth soccer: exercise, learning to work with others, traveling, accepting defeat, winning with humility, and sharing time with family and friends. Additionally soccer can teach tolerance and introduce players to the world. It's these last lessons which Ethan has expanded and built upon. He's the ultimate soccer role model for my children.
 
From his experiences in Africa, he recognized the horrible toll HIV/AIDS has taken throughout the continent. In an effort to stem the spread of the disease, education was essential. So Ethan used soccer as a tool to bring young people together and then teach them how to prevent infection in their own lives and the lives of their loved ones. Called "Grassroot Soccer," it combines education through their "Skillz" curriculum with developing soccer skills. As their web site (grassrootsoccer.org) explains:
 
Skillz is a culture, mindset, and toolkit for educators to use when teaching young people 12-18 about HIV and AIDS and life skills. Skillz creates simple but powerful connections between soccer (sport) and life skills.
 
The program has graduated 340,000 young people and the goal is to graduate one million kids by the 2014 FIFA World Cup in Brazil.
 
In April 2009, Ethan was diagnosed with a rare form of Hodgkin's lymphoma and after intensive chemotherapy and additional aggressive treatment, the cancer is now in remission. Building on this personal experience, Ethan added cancer causes to his extensive charity work. His determination to use his "Survivor" prize money to help African children survive and then use his own cancer survival to help others overcome the disease has always been coupled with his love for soccer.
 
His great example demonstrates that youth soccer can stretch beyond just being a competitive sport and help players participate in the world arena by doing community service. For example, kids could raise money for organizations by running a dribble-thon where teams sign up contributors who pledge an amount for every field length completed by a player. Or they can have a cone contest where teams compete against one another in dribbling a ball through cones in a tag-team manner. Youth soccer can also build character by offering players service opportunities that will hopefully become a part of their life skills. Some clubs have had food drives where players have to donate a can or box of food each time a goal is scored.  Other clubs run soccer clinics for kids who don't have the means to participate regularly in soccer and provide each player with a ball.
 
There are also dozens of soccer-oriented organizations that youth teams can support by donating gently used gear. U.S. Soccer Foundation's "Pass Back" program usually has donation centers at local soccer stores and at state association offices. "Peace Passers" asks you to contact their web site and they will tell you how to get the gear to them. "Operation Give" collects gear that U.S. military troops distribute in Iraq. Fedex provides free shipping to their warehouse (address on the website) so there is no cost to your team to ship the items.

Augmenting the sports aspect of youth soccer with community service and charitable work promises a richer development of our children's character. The amazing part is that you can add these with little extra effort and tons of rewards. While Ethan Zohn is a survivor on several levels, I suspect that's not proactive enough for the life he's created. Surviving wasn't a terminus; it was a point from which to launch even more success. Likewise soccer shouldn't be a terminus experience. We want our kids to celebrate, grow, and build good memories. As a global sport, soccer should give youth players a sense of being part of the global community. That means stretching beyond drills and games to embrace the experiences of other cultures both abroad and in our own cities. Connecting through service can lead to even greater relationships. As Ethan states in the introduction to his series of youth soccer books, Soccer World, "Soccer is played in almost every nation, so this game is like a common language that brings people together. I can just show up at a field with a ball and instantly make 20 cool new friends." Hopefully youth soccer can be the springboard for compassion, altruism, and tolerance in adulthood. Whatever our children aspire to be, they won't all be professional soccer players, but hopefully they will all be good citizens. 
 

Goalkeeping Begins at U-10 Part II

Sam Snow

Well, I have enjoyed reading the discussion on when the role of a goalkeeper should be introduced in youth soccer. I applaud those involved, as I feel that open debate is a sound educational approach to sharing information.

There are domains of development that all humans go through. Those domains are psychosocial (individual psychology and interaction with others), psychomotor (physical) and cognitive (mental). During childhood, the growth in these three domains are more obvious than at other phases of life. It is important to be aware of these facts since knowing the nature of an age (childhood, puberty, adolescence, etc.) is important-coaches must know whom they are coaching. As a coach better understands these stages of child development, then the how, and when, to apply the four components of the game (technique, fitness, tactics and psychology) become clear.

Knowing the characteristics of the U6 and U8 age groups was the foundation for the decision to hold off on introducing goalkeeping until the U10 age group. Psychosocially the U6 age group is quite egocentric. So, while it looks like they play in a group around the ball, it is in fact simply all of the kids on the field vying for the ball simultaneously. This remains true for the U8 age group, but to a lesser degree. Indeed let's have them all run, dribbling, shooting, passing and receiving the ball. That base of good eye-foot coordination will be invaluable to quality goalkeeping in the future. Consider also the demands of today's game at older age groups, where it is expected that goalkeepers can play with their feet (and sometimes the head too) when dealing with long through balls or back passes.

Cognitively the position of goalkeeper requires a good ability to read the game. That comes into play for positioning, angles and distance from the goalmouth and to the ball. It will also be a factor in helping the positioning of a defensive wall when defending against a free kick or to help teammates with their positioning during the flow of play when the goalkeeper's team is defending. Understanding space (distances and angles) on a soccer field only begins to emerge in the U10 age group. That capability, along with reading the movements of the ball and opponents, is very demanding. For children younger than 10 it is simply information overload.

In the psychomotor domain, aside from the physical power needed to cover the goalmouth (diving), deal with high balls (vertical jump) and the physical contact with the ground and other players, visual tracking acuity is not yet developed to an adult stage until around 10-years-old. Visual tracking acuity impacts one's ability to judge the speed and trajectory of the ball when it's in the air or kicked over long distances. The growth of the optic nerve is a factor in the acquisition of visual tracking acuity. That nerve is still growing for the U6 and U8 age group players. If nature can be patient in their growth then so can we as adults.

Now, lest anyone think that nothing at all is being done that builds a foundation to future goalkeeping with the U6 and U8 age groups do not forget the movement education that US Youth Soccer and U.S. Soccer both advocate for those ages. All of the work on eye-foot and eye-hand coordination helps to build that foundation. Some balance exercises can mimic goalkeeper techniques. Skipping, as another example, leads to proper form for a vertical jump to collect a high ball. The coach who understands the physical and technical demands of goalkeeping can add those base movements into movement education with all of the children in the U6 and U8 age groups.

Finally, please read the passages below from Youth Soccer Insider, a Soccer America publication, distributed on Thursday, Sept. 22, 2011.

There are some good reasons why games should be played without goalkeepers until the U-10 level and they're addressed by AYSO's National Coach Instructor John Ouellette and Sam Snow, U.S. Youth Soccer's Coaching Director. Both AYSO and USYS discourage the use of keepers at the U-8 level and below. Snow writes, "The U-8 age group is still in an egocentric phase of psychological development, which tells us that we should allow these children to run and chase the ball, to be in the game –- not waiting at the end of the field for the game to come to them. It is more important at this age that they chase the game. Children this age want to play with the toy (the ball) and they need to go to where the toy is to be fully engaged." Read Snow's article HERE.

Ouellette reiterates that point and also notes that, "In their early experiences with soccer, we want young players to shoot on goal as much as possible because striking the ball is such an important skill for players to master. Young kids are more likely to shoot often when there's no goalkeeper." Read Ouellette's article HERE.