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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.

 

Academy Approach

Sam Snow

I spent the past weekend in Greensboro, N.C. for the Fall U-10 Academy Showcase for North Carolina Youth Soccer. 

On Friday afternoon I met with members of the state instructional staff. We reviewed the content and how to teach the "D" and "E" courses of U.S. Soccer and the U-6/U-8 and the U-10/U-12 Youth Modules of US Youth Soccer. Bill Furjanic, the state Technical Director for North Carolina, meets once a year with the instructional staff for continuing professional development. Such meetings go a long way to keep the instructors up-to-date with any curriculum changes and to discuss teaching methods when working with adults.

The remainder of the weekend was focused on the Academy Showcase. Three years ago North Carolina Youth Soccer started an academy approach for the U-10 age group with 12 clubs involved. Now, 38 clubs from across the state participate. The academy is set up with less emphasis on teams and more on pool training for the age group. The club directors of coaching meet at the state office once a year to sort out their scheduled matches with one another, to discuss training objectives and to learn of the dates and location of the fall and spring showcase events. The showcase is not what happens with older players to display talent to college coaches. This showcase is playing round robin matches so that the clubs far apart from one another in the state get to play each other and for the coaches to better assess the development they are doing with their players. What I saw this weekend was truly wonderful. It is a model that some other state associations are doing and that the rest should copy.

The clubs form teams from their development pools to play other clubs during the year and at the showcase. However, which players are on the teams from within the pool can vary from match to match and showcase to showcase. They play by the US Youth Soccer Modified Rules which can be found here. The parents have been educated by the clubs on the purpose of the U-10 academy – develop players. So the yelling and screaming at players, referees and so on does not go on. Instead, the adults cheer for the kids, sometimes any and all kids. The referees are part of the development too. One referee is used per field, that referee is also there to help teach the players the Laws of the Game during the match. There is great cooperation between the teams and coaches too. In fact, on some of the fields the teams shared the same bench.

Because the atmosphere at the matches is with adult restraint, the players are free to experiment in the match on their skills and tactical ideas. Attempts to try something new were often cheered whether it came off or not. The approach in training and the matches has allowed the players to develop closer to their full potential. It is not often that you see 9-year-olds playing the ball out of the back instead of just kicking it down field. Indeed, many of the keeper distributions were short bowled balls to outside backs who then combined passes with teammates to move the ball up field. Attackers would dribble to the goal line and pass the ball back toward the top of the penalty area for on-running teammates. Mind you, the connections did not always work and possession was often lost, sometimes resulting in a counterattack goal. Still, no one got upset – least of all the kids who just got on with playing the game. 

The academy environment allowed creativity and confidence to grow in the players through trial and error in a real game environment.

For example, I saw a player with the ball facing up field and two opponents bearing down on him. He did a little chip pass between the two onrushing defenders to a teammate. The teammate received the ball on his chest, dropped it to his feet, dribbled around his marker and headed for goal. Other times I saw kids making recovery runs at the proper angle and speed and to the right space. Now, mind you that these moments happened at times and other times the same players played like, well 10-year-olds.

So the system I saw over two days with the boys and girls showed what children this age can do when the pressure solely for results is lifted. And to say that the matches were competitive could be an understatement. The players really went at it in the truest sense of competition. 

A meeting was held during the weekend where Coach Furjanic and I had a chance to speak with the coaches. Also Kathy Robinson, Executive Director for North Carolina Youth Soccer, joined us and spoke to the coaches. They know they have the support of the State Association administrators for this program. With administrators, coaches, parents and referees bought into the concept and seeing the results, the academy in North Carolina is growing. Those who started three years ago have pushed for the same set up with the U-12 age group and several teams in that age division played this weekend, and more will do so in the spring.

If you would like to learn more about this approach to youth player development, Bill Furjanic will make a presentation on the North Carolina Youth Soccer Academy at the 2011 US Youth Soccer Workshop next February in Louisville, Ky. Come join us to learn about this program and much more for administrators, coaches and referees.
 

Long-Term Player Development

Sam Snow

This past weekend I attended a conference on Long-Term Player Development in Ottawa, Ontario, Canada. The conference was hosted by the Eastern Ontario District Soccer Association, in collaboration with the Club Head Coaches and Technical Directors Forum of Eastern Ontario. I conducted four sessions at the conference under the phase titled Active Start/FUNdamentals, which is an introduction to development-appropriate coaching for players aged U-6 through U-12.

On Saturday morning, I ran training sessions for U-6 players with a focus on movement education and exploration in the way the ball rolls. This session included dribbling, catching, kicking, throwing and a 3v3 match with two balls. The U-8 session focused on playing in pairs to work on cooperation, communication and problem solving. Those objectives were accomplished through games that involved passing, receiving, dribbling, tackling and shooting. The final session for me on the day was with U-10 players. Here we got into small group play with an emphasis on problem solving. Through group games with the players in groups of three or four, they had to work on problem solving, which meant tactical thinking, communication, cooperation and, in some cases, competition against the other groups. During these games they practiced in a dynamic way on dribbling, shielding, tackling, intercepting, receiving, tactical awareness, passing, shooting and goalkeeper skills. They also got exposed to the mindset of perseverance. Oh, and they got to sing "Oh Canada" during the cool-down!

On Sunday morning I worked with a group of U-12 players on goalkeeping. US Youth Soccer and U.S. Soccer have advocated for the last 30 years that players get exposed to all positions through the U-14 age group. So to that end, I ran a training session where all of the players had a chance to work on goalkeeper skills. To say the kids had a good time hits the nail squarely. They improved in the session not only in catching and throwing skills, but also confidence, courage, reading the game and competitiveness.

At the end of both days the conference attendees had a chance to ask questions of all the presenters. That proved to be a great exchange of ideas and information for all of us.

Now, the central theme of the conference was Long-Term Player Development. All sports in Canada have agreed to use these principles as the core of their player development. Therefore, the coaches in all Olympic sports in the country are furthering their education to learn the theory and its practical application.

Long-Term Player Development (LTPD) is an important concept for all coaches to consider. The term was first coined by Dr. Istvan Balyi, who described the typical lifetime development of a player and how coaching and training should be applied to that player so that they may be the best that they can be. Over the years many sports organizations worldwide have adopted this approach to their coaching plans. Balyi identified clear chronological stages in a player's development. It is important for all coaches to be familiar with LTPD so they know what they do in coaching sessions will have a beneficial impact of the development of the child through to adulthood. To begin your education on LTPD, click here (pdf).
 

Transition

Sam Snow

Last week's blog has brought up some good discussion on transition in soccer and those moments that make up a good match. In brief here are two of the discussions I've had on the topic of ""Soccer is a Game of Moments.""

The first one was about a 2010 FIFA World Cup match between the U.S. and Algeria in which Jozy Altidore missed a chance to score. 

The exchange began with:

"Sam, loved the blog this week. I actually had some e-mail conversation today with some friends from around the country about this exact topic. The conversation was sparked by an article about why the U.S. struggles to produce natural goal scorers and forwards. Your blog topic was a major point coming across in our e-mails." 

I replied with this comment:

"Jozy had his 'moment' and let his mind get ahead of the moment at hand. It's an interesting part of our game that you need to think ahead to anticipate the action, the next move, but there are those times (with a sitter in front of goal in this case) that you need to be entirely in the moment and ONLY that moment. We'll watch a match tonight (FC Dallas against New York) and see that dichotomy unfold again and again."

In observing that match between the New York Red Bulls and FC Dallas, we often saw the players in the moment of when to think ahead a move or two and when to zero in on the moment at hand.  Naturally, mistakes occurred.  Players at every level of play make these mistakes of being in the wrong moment.  The only difference between professional players and youth players is that the pros make the mistakes less often.  In the case of these two MLS teams, the mistake was usually one of being in the present moment and not thinking ahead a move or two, which is also known as reading the game. Lapses in concentration occur even with national team players too.  So, those of us coaching youth players must expect mistakes in recognizing the 'moment'.  Learning how to stay focused for an entire match is a long-term process.  Gradual improvement in mental focus leads to better tactical decision making, reading the game.  Here is yet another reason for Small-Sided Games for preteen players and continuing to use Small-Sided Games in training sessions for teenaged players.

Here's another comment on the topic:

"I liked your recent blog about helping players learn about transition play. I cannot find any exercises to help practice this. Can you send me a link or a practice session for this? I am coaching a U-13 girls' team that is having some difficulty learning this concept
."

In reply I wrote:

"Transition by itself is not really a full training session topic, but a tactical moment which needs to be taught and worked at by players and coaches at every training session. Anytime you have two groups of players playing against one another, from 1v1 to 11v11, the moment the attackers lose the ball they must instantly transition to defense, the team which just gained possession of the ball must now all think and play on the attack. It is the mental switch changing quickly followed by quick physical action. This is the area where too many American players are slow to react, or better yet, to anticipate and be prepared to react, even before the moment of transition occurs.

So, in your training session some of the activities need to be an 'us' versus 'them' situation, which could be numbers even, 4v4 for example, or numbers uneven, 5 v 2 perhaps. I have attached to this message a series of 4v4 training activities which you could play and emphasize transition within these games."

*If you would like to have a copy of those activities just drop me a note.
 

Soccer Savvy

Sam Snow

"Football is a sport made up of individual moments and you have to know how to play in each of them. That means playing short passes when it suits and playing long balls when necessary, the combination of which is beautiful, but always maintain a balance. The most difficult skill is knowing exactly what to do at each moment."

- Vicente del Bosque, Spanish Men's National Team Coach

Knowing what to do in each moment in a match is a long learning process for both players and coaches. Reading the game requires both players and coaches to have a common language. That language is encompassed in the Principles of Play and the Components of the Game. US Youth Soccer is producing a DVD on coaching the Principles of Play in Small-Sided Games for the U-6 to the U-12 age groups. That DVD should be available by the end of 2010.

It is important for players to eventually be able to perform within all moments of the game (keep in mind though that even adult professional players make mistakes in this regard). For all age groups and all levels of play, the most important moment in the game is transition. Transition is the moment in the match when individual players switch their player role in the game from defense to attack or attack to defense. Transition is understood first by an individual player, then a group of players and then the team as players learn to see the tactical cues in certain situations. That ability leads them to reading the game.

This moment of transition occurs first as mental recognition of the situation and then a decision that initiates physical action. The faster the recognition-decision-action connection is made, the more impactful a player's performance will be. Only once individual players are quickly making the transition from one phase of play to the next will it be possible for a team to execute quick and skillful transition from defense to attack or vice versa.

If transition does not happen fast enough for a player or team then they are always a step or two behind the action. The speed of a player's transition is based on their tactical awareness. Tactical awareness is being mindful of where you are on the field, as well as the location of the ball, teammates and opponents. It's the ability to read the game – to anticipate what will happen next and not merely react to what just happened. We refer to this level of mental focus and tactical awareness as being soccer savvy.

Your players have no chance of becoming soccer savvy players if they are simply cogs in the team wheel. Players who are over-coached in matches become robotic in their performance and cannot make tactical decisions fast enough. Slow decision making leads to reaction players instead of anticipation players. The over-coaching comes from not only coaches, but spectators too. They constantly yell out to the players what to do and when to do it. This further hinders a player's decision making as spectators are typically a step behind the action – the pace of the game is quicker than their words can be conveyed. This environment of coaches and parents making soccer decisions for the players during a match has lead to an American soccer weakness in transition. Our goal is to develop anticipation players, those who can read the game. That type of player can see what will happen next in a match. That player is one step ahead of the game. This sort of player evolves in a healthy soccer environment. That environment requires less coaching during matches and better coaching during training sessions. The training environment should lead to self-reliant players who think and communicate for themselves during a match.