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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.

 

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!
 

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).