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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.

 

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.
 

Developmentally Appropriate

Sam Snow

One aspect of the National Youth License and the U6/U8 Youth Module and the U10/U12 Youth Module courses we emphasize, since it impacts all age groups, is the idea of training and game-day appropriateness for an age group.  So, here's the definition of developmentally appropriate.
 
How does the term developmentally appropriate relate to youth soccer?

Developmentally appropriate refers to the type of training and match environment children are put into and the coaching methods used. Young players, 19-years-old and younger, must be exposed to a proper environment in order to develop. Further, that environment must be suitable for the age and the level of play. The environment for a 12-year-old premier team player and a recreation-plus player will be different because the level of expectation of the player and coach will be different. Expectations will be based on the level of play. Additionally, the environment of training for a 12-year-old will be different than that of a six-year-old, since again the expectations will be different.

For example, youth academy rules for the Premiership clubs in England, boys between ages 9 and 12 must live within one hour traveling distance of the club; between 13 and 16, it's one and a half hours. Different age groups equals different expectations and what is then appropriate.

"They play small-sided games - we let them play.  The coach doesn't keep stopping them, I don't want to hear the coach's voice all the time. It's all about enjoyment at that age, we want them to come back," says Tony Carr, the director of the youth academy at West Ham United in London. He asks, "I have a question - Do we perhaps put too much emphasis on competition and winning too young? But I don't have an answer." (1)

Indeed the emotional impact coaches have upon children must also be developmentally appropriate. Too much pressure to win matches, tournaments and trophies too soon will cause undue distress, then burn out and then drop out. This is the number one reason players quit soccer by age 13!

The coach and parents must also consider their social and cognitive rates of development. From Jean Piaget (note below)  we have learned that this development goes through set stages. ALL players go through the stages. No stage is skipped and each player goes through those stages at different rates.

Technique is at the top of the list of the components of soccer to teach to children. Learning how to do things with the ball is great fun. Playing with the "toy" is the driving force behind participation for most youngsters. Work on ball skills must also be developmentally appropriate to the age group.

"Developmental acquisition of sophisticated movement abilities is a complex phenomenon that begins during the prenatal period and continues through adulthood. …Motor skills are refined from early, gross actions to highly coordinated and complex movements. This developmental trend of simple to complex and gross to fine is the basis of all motor development theory. Sequential acquisition of motor abilities can best be understood utilizing a "stage" model. …Motor development can be divided into two main periods: the preskill and skill refinement phases. …Behavioral characteristics from one level are utilized to build more advanced skills later in the continuum. It is important to note that a deficit in one stage of the developmental process will tend to influence acquisition of more complex skills." (2)

The stages are: preskill phase, reflexive stage, sensory integration stage, fundamental movement pattern development, skill development phase, skill refinement stage, skill performance stage and skill deterioration phase (time to start coaching).

To conclude, "Most young children are not ready for competition organized by adults. They need opportunities and activities in which they can develop and improve basic skills, but not external pressure to perform beyond their developmental abilities. When children do begin to play forms of adult games, modifications will be necessary. …the soccer field does not have to be regulation size and it is not necessary to play with the same size ball the pros use. Nothing is "holy" about the games big people play, but the games should not be modified to the degree that skill is not a requirement. Placing too many people on a team or making too few or too many rules can spoil the game for almost everyone. …Sports offerings should be based on children's needs and level of development. Activities that lead the participant to a higher level of action are the best from a developmental standpoint." (3)

1) Paul Gardner, Youth Soccer London-style, Soccer America, May 1, 2000, p. 7.
2) Russell Pate, et al., Scientific Foundations of Coaching, New York, CBS College Publishing, 1984, pp. 184-190.
3) Billie Jones, et al., Guide To Effective Coaching, second edition, Dubuque, Wm. C. Brown Publishers, 1989, p. 68
 
Piaget, Jean (1896-1980), Swiss psychologist, best known for his pioneering work on the development of intelligence in children. Born in Neuchâtel, Piaget studied and carried out research first in Zürich, Switzerland, and then at the Sorbonne in Paris, where he began his studies on the development of cognitive abilities. Piaget wrote extensively on child development.

In his work, Piaget identified four stages of a child's mental growth. The sensorimotor stage lasts up to age 2; a child's gaining motor control and learning about physical objects marks it. In the preoperational stage, from ages 2 to 7, a child is preoccupied with verbal skills. In the concrete operational stage, from ages 7 to 12, a child begins to deal with abstract concepts. Finally, in the formal operational stage, ages 12 to 15, a child begins to reason logically and systematically. 
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