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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.

 

Build Culture Excellence

Sam Snow

Occasionally I am asked questions about the club environment. Most of those questions are about problems such as dealing with belligerent coaches or the blind eye that club administrators turn when a team is winning but deeper life lessons are not being taught.

Sometimes though, the question is about how can our club improve what we are doing? Here's one such question that came across my desk.

How would you help build and create a culture of excellence? E.g. training, uniforms, standards, expectations?

I think the culture begins with the leaders in the club.  That will be the top administrators and coaches, and certainly having the full board of directors on board is a major plus; they must walk the talk, so to speak, when it comes to the club's mission statement and philosophy.  The next most important group to get on track to create a culture of excellence is the parents.  There is no doubt this is challenging and a never-ending aspect of the culture, but in the end it is the most important.  The parents influence all others in the club; players, coaches and administrators – in that order.

Working with the parents regarding the sporting experience of children though is an area still largely ignored by clubs. Most still believe the priority for their efforts is player development. That once was the case, but not today. The reality is that the number one priority is education of the soccer parent. That education is not necessarily about the tactics of the game or the rules for the age group. It certainly isn't about how to raise children. No, it's about the environment at matches, the either positive or infamous ride home, the understanding of the long term goals of youth soccer participation and it's about the management of adult expectations of the return on investment. It is about being a supportive group for the youth soccer experience. Clearly the majority of parents fall into exactly that category as evidenced by the large numbers of young people playing the game all across our nation. The Parents section of the US Youth Soccer website has quality resources for clubs and parents: /parents/. I encourage you to take advantage of the free materials and guidance there.

For a culture of excellence then to be understood and embraced by the club members the leaders must LEAD. Begin that endeavor by following these objectives of leadership. An interesting way to think about leadership in a succinct manner:

Leadership Characteristics:
-           Take accountability for results
-           Create direction and focus
-           Set the bar high
-           High energy level
-           Always willing to try new things
-           Unleash energy and talent in operations
-           Self-driven
-           Prioritize speed

Some of these elements become challenging when they are out of our direct control.  For those that are in our control, we can embrace them as they help us make forward strides and have significant impacts.

I'll close with one of my favorite passages from a quality sports leader which is taught in the National Youth License coaching course.

"There are many people, particularly in sports who think that success and excellence are the same thing and they are not the same thing. Excellence is something that is lasting and dependable and largely within a person's control. In contrast, success is perishable and is often outside our control… If you strive for excellence, you will probably be successful eventually… People who put excellence in first place have the patience to end up with success… An additional burden for the victim of the success mentality is that he/she is threatened by success of others and resents real excellence. In contrast, the person fascinated by quality is excited when he/she sees it in others."

Joe Paterno – Penn State football coach – 1990
 

Reinventing the ball

Sam Snow

Recently Mike Woitalla, executive editor of Soccer America, wrote an article in Youth Soccer Insider on reinventing the ball. The article talks about using different types of balls in training to help players improve their feel for the ball. The article opens with these lines: "It seems to me that playing soccer with different kinds of balls is good for children's skill development. I don't have scientific evidence for this, but a lot of anecdotes from great players."
 
US Youth Soccer agrees with the use of different types of balls in training to help players developing better skills.  We advocate this approach in the 'street soccer' portion of the National Youth License.  We also talk about playing these training games sometimes on different surfaces which affects the bounce and roll of the ball.  We teach coaches that occasionally using different types of balls and/or playing on a different surface will improve players visual perception of the way a ball rolls, bounces, spins and moves through the air.  That variety broadens and deepens players' skills at reading the movement of the ball and the skills then to control or propel it.  While as coaches we came to this practice through educated experience and the results are anecdotal, there are theories from physical education supporting the approach.
 
  • Principle of Variable Practice:  Block practice aids performance while variable practice aids in learning.  Variable practice causes an increase in attention.  The variables in this case are the type of ball being used or the type of surface on which the game is taking place or both for more advanced players.

  • Principle of Feedback:  Internal and external sources of information about motor performance are essential for learning to take place.  The immediate feedback the player receives here is from the action of the ball when received or propelled by the player.

  • Principle of Skill Improvement:  The development of motor skills progresses along a continuum from least mature to most mature.  The rate of progression and the amount of progress within an individual depends upon the interaction of nature and nurture.  We know from both practical experience and research on skill acquisition that variable practice accelerates skill development.  This is especially important in soccer where the game conditions change constantly – hard field, muddy field, strong wind, no wind, quality of ball in the match, etc.

  • Principle of Transfer:  The more identical two tasks are the greater the possibility that positive transfer will occur.  Practice conditions should match the conditions in which the motor skill is going to be used.  By using different types of balls in small-sided games in training transference is more likely into matches.

  • Principle of Practice:  Practicing the motor skill correctly is essential for learning to take place.  Some coaches will think this principle supports a more assembly line approach to learning skills, but the opposite is true.  The variety of practice in the environment of small-sided games and different types of balls mimics the multitude of variations a player will face in a match.  Yes most training should occur with the proper soccer ball for the age group.  However the use of other types of balls takes skill acquisition a step further and truly challenges players in a fun way.

  • Principle of Interest:  A player's attitude toward learning a skill determines for the most part the amount and kind of learning that takes place.  Using different types of balls and sometimes playing in different environments or on different surfaces will grab youngsters attention and give them fun new challenges.

  • Principle of Whole–Part Learning:  The complexity of the skill to learn and the player's ability determines whether it is more efficient to teach the whole skill or break the skill into component parts.  We advocate a games-based approach to learning skills so that the players can connect when and how to use a particular skill to the situation in the game.  For example, the type of ball being used in the training game will be a determining factor to make a short or long pass, or no pass at all, or just dribble and/or shield. Variety is the spice of exciting and challenging training sessions.  Using different types of balls in training is one way to create a good learning environment for young players.

Take a look at the US Youth Soccer DVD Skills School – developing essential soccer techniques. There is also an accompanying document, Skills School - Fundamental Ball Skills, for your use.

 

Thoughts from "Vision"

Sam Snow

I could not have expressed these thoughts better myself. Here are comments from a youth coach on the stair-step approach to soccer for youth players from Horst Wein (a US Youth Soccer Workshop presenter in 2006 by the way) and the US Youth Soccer document "Vision". The last line is a question for you to contemplate.

Since the moment I first read Horst Wein's "Developing Youth Football Players" in 2007, he has been one of my biggest youth soccer coaching influences and inspirations.  My youth coaching philosophy is heavily "Horst Wein-ian" influenced.  He's helped to bolster my self-confidence and intelligence, and help me to put aside my ego, tap into my humility, and try to be the kind of youth coach who is perceptive enough of my youth players to recognize when I must be flexible and adapt, change, modify and experiment in order to attempt to meet their ever changing and unique needs.

I really liked your "Vision" article.  I'll share it with my team and forward it to my club's president and some of the other coaches I know.  It should be mandatory reading for every youth soccer coach and should be part of every coaching course/license/certificate curriculum.  The best coaches I've met and worked with live and work the "Vision".  The coach I try to be lives and works the "Vision".

It's a shame that some of those who run our youth soccer organizations and/or teach coaching courses all over the country, often give lip service to, or don't understand/believe or use the many important topics and concepts you cover in your article.  Their programs, players, and youth soccer in the U.S. suffer for their lip service and rubber stamping.

You may be familiar with the English FA's skills assessment program called "Soccerstar Challenge"   (http://www.fa-soccerstar.com/).   I like the utility of the individual tests for establishing a player's baseline and being able to show personal improvement through the season.  However, I think the "stars" comparison rating system of each individual's scores against the scores in the "Soccerstar Challenge" database is interesting but not very useful to me.

Too many children don't get the chance to develop or grow their potential for playing, and/or enjoying soccer because there are not enough "Vision" and "Horst Wein-ian" adults and coaches who can help them begin to realize this potential.

Could you be one of the coaches who can help them?

If you would like to receive a copy of the Vision document then just drop me a line and I'll be glad to send a copy to you.
 

Team Rankings

Sam Snow

Just like the Laws of the Game, our approach to governing the youth soccer environment has shades of grey. There is a wide range of players to whom we have an equal responsibility. That responsibility is to provide to them through the best of our abilities a youth soccer culture which allows them to strive toward their own full potential. Finding the right balance of black or white or grey is a daily challenge for everyone involved in soccer beyond a casual experience. Here's an exchange I had some time ago as an example.

Dear Coach Snow,

I just received the December Kwik Kicks email. I do not understand why US Youth soccer is promoting the top 30 youth clubs honored by Soccer America.

I have been coaching youth soccer for over 20 years; have attended most of the US Youth Soccer, US Soccer and NSCAA licenses and certificates. I recently completed my National Youth License. The one thing that to me as a coach and administrator of a youth club is getting parents and coaches with US Youth Soccer's philosophy of everyone should play, winning is not as important as inclusion. Many of us have been dismissed by clubs for trying to convey that message to parents and board members.

When I see Soccer America's top clubs are based on winning national championships, and US Youth Soccer to print it tells me maybe even US Youth Soccer needs open up their eyes. I have witnessed these types of teams, and even today I see those teams playing to win, coaching fear and intimidation to get the most out of their players. I do not believe that is a healthy way to run club, and US Youth Soccer should give absolutely no credence to an award by a soccer magazine. I have been trying for 20 years to get people to change, I've had some success but this will not help me.

In response:

US Youth Soccer has always stood by our motto of The Game For All Kids.

Mission Statement
US Youth Soccer is non-profit and educational organization whose mission is to foster the physical, mental and emotional growth and development of America's youth through the sport of soccer at all levels of age and competition.

So the players, teams and clubs which end up being recognized by Soccer America are part of the team so to speak. In that regard, we are inclusive of all member clubs. That inclusiveness in no way diminishes our commitment to improving the youth soccer experience. The work that you do contributes to that goal. By involving all clubs in our collective efforts we can better shift the soccer landscape to one where players are respected even while they strive to play for a national championship or to simply play a pickup game.

We agree with you that coaches should not compel their players' performance being using fear or intimidation. This is where the continuing education of parents, administrators and coaches is of paramount importance. I am glad that you are a part of that effort given your commitment to coaching education.

Finding the right balance with winning and development is also a challenge at times. Some folks have interpreted the US Youth Soccer position of inclusion to mean that winning is not important. STRIVING to win is always important. Teaching players to try their best is not only a soccer lesson, but a life lesson too. Our teams should always try to play their best and try to win the match. However this effort to win must not be at the detriment of the players. This means coaches, even with teams in the highest level of play, need to develop the entire team. This gives the team bench strength. A wise coach knows that at some point in a season you'll need the reserve players to come up strong. That means they need meaningful playing time during the year. To develop the team to win the coach needs to develop all of the players in training sessions. By all means play to win, but how you win, how you play is of crucial importance.