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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.

 

Heads Up

Sam Snow

Over the last fifteen years there have been studies conducted on the physical and mental impacts of heading. Nothing is conclusive at this time. Consider this from the U.S. Soccer Sports Medicine Committee:
 
"At Present, there are many gaps and inconsistencies within the medical literature regarding the safety of heading in soccer. The impact of purposeful heading is linear which is less severe than rotational impact. …Head injuries during soccer are more likely to be from accidental contacts such as head-ground, head-opponent, or the rare head-goalpost. …. At this point in time, it is premature to conclude that purposeful heading of a modern soccer ball is a dangerous activity."
 
So most head injuries in soccer are from the head impacting something other than the ball. The human skull is surprisingly tough. Head injuries from the ball occur when the technique is done incorrectly. Here lies the real problem. Many coaches teach heading incorrectly or not at all. So many players head the ball wrong and this could cause injuries or inaccurate or poorly paced headers.
 
When should players start? Introduce heading in the U-10 age group. Teach heading to score and to clear in the U-12 age group both standing and jumping. Teach heading to pass, backwards heading (flicks) and diving headers in the U-14 age group. These recommendations by age group are the average, middle of the bell-curve so to speak. A few players may start some of these techniques earlier, especially if they have older siblings playing. Others will start later, as their confidence grows.
 
Early experiences can be painful if a careful progression in building up confidence is not applied. When introducing the technique of heading the ball for the first time I suggest you start with a Nerf type soccer ball or an underinflated volleyball. Gradually work your way up to a fully inflated soccer ball. Begin with juggling with the head so that the player controls the pace, height, frequency of repetition, movement, etc.   Next go to head juggling with a partner. A good group game for heading is Toss-Head-Catch. In this practice activity the ball is being served from the hands, so the force is less than a crossed ball and is more accurate. The increased accuracy will allow for more repetitions of correct headers.
 
The whole body is used to head the ball. The movement begins with the legs, the movement of the core muscles throws the trunk and upper body forward and the head, from the neck upwards, follows through quickly. The position of the forehead to the ball determines its flight path.
 
The earliest and most elementary lesson about heading is never let the ball hit you. Go out and meet it, and make contact with the front part of the forehead where the skull is the thickest. You must attack the ball! You hit it, not the other way around. The main surface of contact is of course the forehead. The ball must be struck, not cushioned. The neck and back muscles should be rigid to generate power. The part played by the eyes is important! Although it is likely that the reflex blinking action causes the eyes to be closed at the moment when the ball is struck by the forehead, players should be encouraged to watch the ball right onto the forehead. Only by doing so can a player time the actual heading movement accurately. There need be no fear of danger to the eyes since they are well protected by the heavy bone structure immediately above them.
 
There is no better feeling in soccer than beating an opponent in the air to plant a header in the net. Once you have done it, there is a hunger to do it again. It is a spectacular way of scoring goals, or come to that of stopping them. Defensively it is a great thrill in consistently clearing the ball in the air, beating opposing forwards, and establishing control. The young player who adds heading to his or her armory of skills will go far in the game.
 

National Championship Series Notes

Sam Snow

In 2009 I attended two of the region stage tournaments of the US Youth Soccer National Championship Series as well as the national finals. I made a report on the events that was given to the state association Technical Directors and the U.S. Youth Soccer ODP Regional Head Coaches. The intent is to use the notes of our playing trends to improve our standard of play. Here is an excerpt from that report. I hope that it will cause discussion among the coaches in your circles, thus having a positive impact on player development.

Technique
Receiving the ball out of the air is still an issue even though it was identified and discussed in coaching schools from 2000 and onward.  Why then is this an issue now?  Clearly clubs are not working on this technique.  The skill of receiving the ball out of the air is more of a challenge with girls.

Sometimes the field surface is compacted and hard yet players allow the ball to bounce which kills the timing of support and off the ball runs.

First attacker on break-away type runs should learn how to do a stutter run to lose markers.
Players need to make more adjustments to rain soaked fields with flicks (feet & head), chipping, lift the ball with foot to flick, etc.

At corners almost every player has hips square to the ball.  Beginning at U10 we must teach players to angle the hips to see the ball and the field.

In general we need more guile on the ball with simple feints.

Tactics
Goalkeeping ebb and flow can improve.  All of the goalkeepers play out of the goalmouth, up to the edge of the penalty area and some of them beyond it which is good.  But few make angle (lateral) adjustments.  Teach them to keep their bellybutton in a straight line with the ball and the center of the goalmouth.  Is this deficiency because we don't train goalkeepers with the team enough for them to gain a better tactical reading of the game?

Trend: off the ball runs (players B and C) get ahead of the winger (player A) with the ball or level with the dribbler, which means the cross tends to land behind the runners (once player A dribbles from position A1 to A2).  Runs tend to be straight instead of curved.

alt

Tactical goal kicks continue to be a shortcoming – contributing to this problem is the inability of goalkeepers to hit an accurate goal kick.  This free kick restart must be placed accurately.

alt

Organized, tactical group defending is rare.  Most defending is individual pressure on the ball.  Players do talk on marking assignments which is a strong base on which to build tactical defending.

When defenders win the ball there are moments to build the attack out of the back which the players have the talent to do.  This moment of play needs to be emphasized more by the coaches.  When a fullback gets the ball midfielders and forwards are not making runs toward the ball to give short pass options so booting the ball is left as the main option.

Tactical flank play dictates players knowing when to pass backwards in order to go forward.  Our players currently force the ball forward at incorrect tactical moments.  We kill space on the attack before we are ready to play into it.

When defending against a free kick the defenders often drop into the goal area and block their own goalkeeper's path to the ball.

Support runs get ahead of the ball carrier and on the wrong side of the opponent so combinations are not possible.  Too often we are so anxious to go forward that the attack doesn't have enough numbers around the ball to keep a sustained attack going.  We are still looking for players who can put their foot on the ball and change the game tempo.

With better 1 vs. 1 defending more attacks would falter.  There is too much stabbing and diving in by the first defender.

Most attacks bypass the midfield line in the team and occasionally the fullback line too.  Attacks get strung out with too many long passes.  This style results in individual or pairs attack and consequently individual and some pairs defending.  Tactical group (block) defending is rare at best.  If the attack built more through the lines in the team then tactical defending is required of the opposition.  The entire level of play is improved subsequently.

Of course with every team there is a need for team leaders.  They and other key players have a real impact on the team and the game.  Some of these personalities are evident in the National Championship Series matches.  Yet there needs to be more of them.  Certainly having such leaders in a team often depends on the personalities of the players and there are times when no natural leaders are within a team.  Yet more leaders can be developed when coaches give more control of the match over to the players and then hold them accountable for their actions.  Coaches need to spend time through the season encouraging leadership by the players.

Play in the U17 – U19 boys was typified by more testosterone than tactics – leading to constant turnovers of possession. However, at the N.C.S. Finals with some exceptions these age groups played a lot of possession soccer.  It was gratifying to see teams playing the ball out of the back through their midfielders and outside backs to maintain possession.  Another positive improvement was seen by goalkeepers marshaling their penalty area and working with defenders to maintain possession when transitioning from defense to attack.  Some of the keepers helped their team maintain possession by quality throws and drop-kicks.

On a couple of occasions it was seen that parents cheered good play by any player on their team – wonderful, positive team culture.  Further, it is noted that the over whelming majority of spectators were worthy of the phrase 'good sports'.  In one instance coaches of team A cheered for a wonderful save by the goalkeeper of team B even though the score was 0-0 at the time.  The reaction of those coaches showed a respect for the game!
 

Taking a Knee Part II

Sam Snow

Last June I wrote some notes on the practice of players 'taking a knee' during an injury. It has been mentioned by a reader that some action, taking a knee or huddling together, keeps the other players from crowding around the injured player. That's a good point. If other players crowd around they may aggravate the situation. At the least they are in the way of the first aid responders and the referee. The coaches and/or team mangers are the most likely first aid responders and the referee must be near the injured player as the safety of the players is the referee's primary responsibility during a match.

It has also been brought up that having the players who are not injured go toward their team's technical area may be somewhat unfair. Here are comments on that approach to the situation by the Technical Director for Montana Youth Soccer.
 
"Just read your blog on (take a knee). Personally I am not in favor of taking a knee and yes it's not in the Laws of the Game. But you recommended players coming to the side line for some brief instruction from the coach. Here is where I disagree with you. It may be illegal to coach during an injury. I DO NOT think a coach should be taking advantage of a team due to injury. One coach has to help his/her player, the other gets to coach his/her team. If not against the Laws, definitely against the spirit of the game. I instruct my high school team to get together at the top of the box with the goalkeeper to discuss the game amongst themselves. Just food for thought."
 
Both comments are valid points made from a practical perspective of coaches. So if there is an injury, which causes a time out call by the referee, then the players should stay on the field of play, get some water, perhaps talk among themselves about the match if they are mature enough to do so and be ready to resume play at the referee's indication to do so.
 

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.