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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.

 

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.

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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.

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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.
 

Skills Training

Sam Snow

It is not uncommon for coaches to train young players in one component of the game at a time. This is often seen in a separate training on technique which is accomplished through specific drills. With older players, the training of the four individual components of soccer is seen mostly in fitness training. While there is a place for separate fitness training, particularly from 15 years old and older, most training sessions must be economical. Economical training is working on two or more components of the game at a time. For example; in a 4 v 4 training activity, all four components of the game are taking place but the coach might focus the training on just one component. If that component is technique then the benefit of this approach over other drills is having players connect the skill to the tactical moment in the game. If one attends the "D" or "C" license course, then the coaching of technique and tactics are done simultaneously. Yet decades of teaching skills as a standalone component are still being phased out. Many coaches and clubs are in the process of making the change. That leads us to this exchange with a club coach.

I am struggling to defend a principle that you taught us at the"Y" License course this summer. If I recall, you told us that for U10s - in which I include U9s, the pinnacle of coaching is to have players solve problems in 3s and 4s.

Our technical director has set a curriculum that focuses almost exclusively on technique for the U9 travel players and waits to introduce group concepts at U10. I understand his general approach, but feel that the particular group of boys in our U9 group are especially gifted and have already shown themselves to be ready to solve problems in groups rather than an exclusive focus on technique. During the summer I led them through sessions on defensive transition and pressure-cover activities (using age-appropriate activities and small sided games of course) as well as possession passing and support. The results of the summer training are showing in games. Our U9s are using back passes, to the keeper at times, to relieve pressure and redistribute. In our last game I counted fewer than 3 "clearances" since our boys tend to want to hold possession. I noticed good cover and spacing all over the field. The boys don't know they are doing it; they are just doing it and are enjoying being good at this game that they love.

I am fearful that once the season starts, and the Academy training is focused on technique there will be an exclusion of the principals of play and our boys will not continue to push the envelope. I am not saying that technique is not critical to a U9 player, it is important. What I think I am saying is that principals of play can and should be taught along with technique to U9 players if they are capable of getting the concepts.

I think I am correct, but cannot articulate the reasons why. I'd appreciate your perspective and thoughts on this so I can adjust my own opinions. I would like to better understand the pinnacle of coaching that you support and if your opinion can help me influence our Academy training curriculum I would be grateful.

Well, it sounds like you had a productive and fun summer with the players. I am sure you are all looking forward to the fall season. The situation you describe is actually a 'good problem' in that the need to improve the ball skills of the American player is quite real. However teaching ball skills in isolation from the game is a problem. Even young players need to make a connection to why they are practicing the skills. Yes it is fun to learn how to do things with the ball; it is a toy to them after all. But players 8 and older like knowing how skills can help them play the game.

So for the U10 age group, which clearly includes the U9 age group, the ball to player ratios that should occur in training sessions throughout the soccer year are 1:1, 1:2 and 1:3/4. The player combinations could be 1v1 up to 4v4 and then odd number combinations such as 2v3 or 4v2. These variations of player combinations, still having a maximum of four players on the ball, puts the kids into situations they can comprehend – in time. Now they are seeing the game from both an individual and teammate perspective. While working the players up to meaningful play in a small group the need to practice in pairs and individually continues. The skills and principles of play done on their own or with a partner are crucial building blocks to small group play.

For example, they are at an age when they can learn how to do a wall pass. Now working on inside of the foot passing makes better sense to them. Tactically they can see how a teammate can help them in the situation. Coaching technique and tactics (execution of the principles of play) do not have to be done separately.

I recommend that you sit with your Club Director and have the conversation. Yes, you can indeed teach a lot of ball skills in the U10 age group, but don't exclude their practical application in the game.

I suggest that you also involve the Technical Director from your state soccer association as he or she can give you a good deal of support on the plans for player development.

Finally, it must be said that too often coaches try to compartmentalize the process; i.e., learn the technique first, and then play the game, however as Nater and Gallimore (2006) comment on the teachings of the late John Wooden, "… stressing fundamentals is not enough. Coach teaches that the purpose of being fundamentally sound is to provide a foundation on which individual creativity and imagination can flourish. It is a false dichotomy, he insists, to claim that one must either focus on fundamentals or on higher-order learning and understanding. One rests on the other, and both should be properly taught concurrently from the onset".