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Sam's Blog is a bi-weekly addition to the US Youth Soccer Blog. Sam Snow is the Coaching Director for US Youth Soccer.

 

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. 
-Encarta® 98 Desk Encyclopedia © & 1996-97 Microsoft Corporation.
All rights reserved.  
 
 

Parents ask: Is it too much?

Sam Snow

I often receive inquiries from coaches, administrators and parents involved with the youth soccer scene. Some of the issues provide the opportunity to share information that is of interest to a large number of people. Here's one such exchange.

"As parents of a soccer player, we hear different opinions regarding the kind and number of tournaments our team should attend during any given year, as well as the age when boys are seriously looked at for college soccer recruitment purposes. We would like input from experts like you in this matter.

Our team is U-14 and this year we have gone or plan to go to tournaments in Dallas, Houston, Kansas City, Edmond and Tulsa. There is a strong suggestion to attend a tournament either in Las Vegas or Phoenix in the spring. We would like to know your opinion about attending all these different tournaments. How many do you think are necessary for the development of the team, considering the current ranking of our team? Some parents think that there are college soccer recruiters at big tournaments such as the ones in Vegas or Phoenix and this is a good enough reason for our U-14 team to attend. They say recruiters are already looking at 8th graders and they will remember them five years from now. Do you know when serious recruitment begins?"

The good news is that the overwhelming majority of college coaches of men's teams are not recruiting 8th graders. Some of these college coaches will look at high school sophomores but the real recruiting is with juniors and the deal is sealed with seniors. So those college recruiters may indeed be at big tournaments, but they are not watching the U-14 matches.

Now as to the number of tournaments a U-14 team should attend it is approximately two in the fall and two to three, including the state cup, in the spring. Here is the Position Statement from the 55 state association Technical Directors on tournaments in youth soccer.

TOURNAMENT PLAY # 11
       
We believe that excessive play at competitive tournaments is detrimental to individual growth and development, and can serve to reduce long-term motivation. Do not multiple matches being played on one day and one weekend have a negative effect on the quality experience and development of the individual player? Further far too many playing schedules include so many tournaments and matches that there is never an "off season." We believe that players under the age of twelve should not play more than 100 minutes per day, and those players older than thirteen should not play more than 120 minutes per day.
       
We also recommend to tournament managers and schedulers:
  • The players should be allowed ample rest between matches.
  • That all tournament matches be of the same length and that no full-length match be introduced during play-off rounds.
  • Kick-off times allow players a reasonable opportunity to prepare for competition. This encompasses rest and recovery, nutrition and adequate time to warm-up and stretch after traveling a long distance in addition to taking into consideration extreme environmental conditions.
"Thank you so much for your valuable answers; I have forwarded them to all team parents. That won't make me very popular because many are convinced that recruiters will be looking at our team at this young age. Regarding the number of tournaments, it seems like we are going to more tournaments than it is recommended. My question is this: Is there anything parents can do to make a team follow the recommendations from the US Youth Soccer? We have a good coach and we believe his intentions are good, but what can be done when the coach is exceeding the number of tournaments and most parents go along with that, some because they feel we have to support the coach no matter what and others because they don't want to go against the crowd? We want our son to continue to play, but we find ourselves having to go along with decisions that are not based on facts or recommendations from experts and that may even be detrimental in the long run, as you state in your article. Our son does not really have any other choice where we live, he is already on the best team of his age cohort in this town and the team placed second in the state in the spring. My husband and I have suggested we travel less and train more, but this has not had an echo."

Parents should be involved in their child's soccer education just as they are with the academic education. So attend parent meetings, set up meetings with the coaching staff (similar to a parent-teacher conference) and speak to the club administration about the policies and philosophy of the club. Ask for information on the policy for the number of matches and tournaments by age group, for example.

The problem with too many tournaments and/or matches is that it isn't really what parents should pay the soccer club for as the end objective for their child. The focus should be on the training sessions. Just as the focus at a good school is more on the lessons than the examinations. You don't want your child at a school where they take test after test after test and get very few lessons. That's the issue with many soccer clubs. The matches are the tests and the training sessions are the lessons. I am sure that the staff at your state association would be glad to assist your club with any of the aspects of a well-designed club.
 

Organic or Mechanic?

Sam Snow

On the soccer market today, one can find a number of services and products that purport to have an influence on player development. Some go so far as to state they can cause a "breakthrough" in training the young stars of the future! A few claim to be unique and use software or other devices to help coaches rapidly drive player development. Many of them offer data collection and progress reports that make player development a bit of an assembly line mindset. The approach is almost a computer world matrix – people as cogs in the machine. The wording used in their promotions makes the program offered seem like the best thing since sliced bread. If you haven't gathered it yet from my tone I am skeptical of such programs and claims being made.

"We have to recognize that human flourishing is not a mechanical process, it's an organic process. And you cannot predict the outcome of human development; all you can do, like a farmer, is create the conditions under which they will begin to flourish." – Sir Ken Robinson

These companies are even misusing the concept of matrix – something within which something else originates or develops is the closest definition to what they have in mind. The most common use of the word is a rectangular array of mathematical elements that is subject to special algebraic laws. The idea is one of basically crunching numbers. So it is a mechanical process of developing players. Many people like the idea because it quantifies development into neat little book reports that they can share with others. We can look at years of data from soccer schools, including Lilleshall, and see that few players make it from even those ranks into the pros. Player development is a somewhat messy pathway that is largely unpredictable. That fact frustrates a lot of folks who want to 'package' player development and sell it to parents, administrators and coaches who may not be well informed enough about soccer to resist what on the surface looks like a good idea. They would need a deeper knowledge of the game, children and teenagers to understand that no one system works for all. The assembly line approach to player improvement falls in line with those who want to measure ball skills. All of these approaches have a limited affect on improving player performance.

I was a 440 yard dash runner in high school (yes it was so long ago that the race was in yards not meters). I knew that I needed to shave off tenths of a second from my time, but I needed to learn better running mechanics and so forth in order to do that. The measurement of time for the run was not sufficient to aid my mechanics and strategy for a race. As Dr. Albert Einstein once said, "Not everything that counts can be counted and not everything that can be counted counts."

In paraphrasing Sir Robinson's comment I see how player development is an organic process. We cannot fully predict the outcome. You can only create the conditions under which players can flourish.

Look for these concepts and more in the soon-to-be released Player Development Model from US Youth Soccer.
 

NYL & Leaders

Sam Snow

The last three weeks I have been very busy with National Youth License courses and club sessions in North Carolina, Texas, Washington and Virginia. US Youth Soccer has conducted, in conjunction with the State Associations and U.S. Soccer, 19 courses including the one I am concluding now in Virginia. To date, over 600 coaches and administrators have attended those courses. One of the goals of U.S. Soccer for the next few years is to impact Zone 1 of the Player Development Pyramid. Zone 1 encompasses the age groups of U-6 to U-12. That of course, fits precisely in the focus of the NYL, the "Y" License. So, US Youth Soccer along with Claudio Reyna, Youth Technical Director for U.S. Soccer, hopes to spread the impact of the "Y" License even further along the youth soccer landscape. Why the emphasis on Zone 1?

If we hope to improve the quantity of players and quality of play in Zones 2 and 3 then we need to look at what we are doing in the beginning of a person's soccer life. Most Americans come into playing the game of soccer at some point by the age of 12. Our approach is that if we take care of the beginning, the end will take care of itself. This is not to stay that we ignore good coaching and a good soccer experience for teenage players. It is saying that we must do a better job with the soccer environment, coaching, officiating and soccer parenting with the preteen players. As the culture of soccer in Zone 1 improves, then in time it will trickle up to older age groups. So, how does the "Y" License play into all of this?

The "Y" gives us a forum from which correct information for running training sessions and setting up matches for children can be delivered. Fair enough you may say, but 600 coaches out of the 300,000 who are part of US Youth Soccer is not much of a dent. That's true – unless we can reach decision makers. To that end one of the courses held at the end of October was an invitation only course conducted at the US Youth Soccer national office at Pizza Hut Park at the club house and fields of FC Dallas. At that course we had in attendance a member of the national board of directors, the manager of the Passback program for the U.S. Soccer Foundation, the youth directors from four professional franchises, the director of a large Soccer Across America program in New York City, the executive director of a state association and numerous state association staff coaches. That course impacted leaders at several levels of the game. It may thereby impact policy making decisions.

We do indeed want coaches and administrators from grassroots programs attending the course. They naturally have the most direct contact time with players and their development. But we also need the movers and shakers attending the course. We need coaches and administrators from the national level, the state level and the club level in the course. Then we begin to change the youth soccer culture. Then we reshape the American soccer landscape. This is not an easy task nor will it evolve quickly or without consternation. To paraphrase President John F. Kennedy, we leaders should choose to take on this challenge not because it is easy but because it is hard.

The updated list of 2011 National Youth Licenses can be found here. Additional courses will be added throughout the year.

Sign up for a National Youth License course today!