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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.

 

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.
 

Foreign Development

Sam Snow

Many soccer fans enjoyed watching Germany play in the 2010 FIFA World Cup. They played some exciting soccer and went quite far in the tournament. Often, when a nation has a good run in the World Cup or they win, as Spain did, then clubs at many levels try to copy the system of play or maybe even the entire developmental process. I believe that we should always look to how players are developed around the world. Let's look closely at what Spain, Germany or others have done, but I do not believe we should ever take someone else's program in whole. The circumstances and developmental stages of the game are different in each country. Few nations have the situation we have with soccer in America. Let's take the best from other nations for our particular needs. But let's not ever copy carte blanche the methods of another nation. Here is the Sports Illustrated article which spurred these thoughts when it was sent to me by a youth soccer coach.

Here's my initial response to the article:

I know there are good ideas in Germany (DFB) for us to copy. Some of the infrastructure they have created is beyond us presently. As the richest Football Association in the world, the DFB can underwrite a lot of the expenses for elite player development. Plus, they have the will to do so.

The question in my mind is, are we doing all we can with our resources? Personally I think we should pour in personnel and resources to Zone 1 (U-6 to U-12) of the U.S. Soccer Player Development Pyramid. When the base of pyramid becomes stronger and broader then the Zones above it benefit.

Furthermore, some interesting insights from Coach Löw are made in the article. I like the direction of playing the game with the emphasis on attack. I know that approach suits our American participants in the game.

Now, the point that he divided the pitch into 18 sections to be clear on each player's job on the field is wonderful for National Teams, pro teams and perhaps for college teams and U-19 select teams. The younger you go though, I think the reins need to be loosened. 

So for the U-6 age group, go ahead and run 'willy nilly' all over the field. Chase the ball to your heart's delight.

With the U-8 age group, instill a more clear idea on the attacking half and the defending half of the field and some general ideas on how to play there.

For the U-10 age group, teach the concept of the horizontal and vertical thirds of the field.

With the U-12 age groups, take the thirds (horizontal and vertical) of the field and really ingrain it into the players' minds. Let's get across ideas on how to play on the flanks and the central channel. Also teach the general tactical ideas for each horizontal third; i.e., less dribbling out of the defending third and more passing.

At U-14, let's work on the outsides of the defending and attacking thirds, the corners of the field if you will, and how to play in those zones.

With U-16 teams, train in detail about playing in the midfield third and how to get into the attacking third with tactics beyond always playing the through ball.

At U-19, by all means break down the pitch into those 18 quadrants.
 

Conway Testimonial

Sam Snow

Last Wednesday I had the pleasure to attend a testimonial dinner for Jimmy Conway. Jimmy has now retired as the technical director for Oregon Youth Soccer after 28 years on the job. Along the way he also coached at Pacific University and he began the men's program at Oregon State University. He also served on the staff for Region IV US Youth Soccer ODP for many years.

If you didn't know, Jimmy also played for the Portland Timbers in the North American Soccer League. And when he retired from the pro game he was an assistant coach with the Timbers from 1980-1982 and again from 2001-2005. He also played for Bohemian Football Club, Manchester City Football Club and Fulham Football Club. Jimmy was an Irish international earning 20 caps and scoring 3 goals.

Attending the testimonial with me from US Youth Soccer were John Sutter, President and Jim Cosgrove, Executive Director. In the banquet room were another 200 people who arrived at the affair from literally around the world. Those personages included Bobby Howe, Cliff McGrath, Dean Wurzberger, John Madding, Peter Mellor, Bill Irwin and Jan Smisek. Of course, Oregon Youth Soccer was represented by Ric Listella, President; Chuck Keers, Executive Director and Mike Smith, Technical Director.

Mick Hoban headed up a group of volunteers who did an outstanding job in organizing and then pulling off the golf tournament, dinner and testimonial match.

In the trivia on Jimmy that was assembled by Dennis O'Meara, there's one line I think says a lot about Jimmy as a player and a person. "From 1966 through 1980, it appears that Jimmy's name only went into the ref's book for one reason – scoring goals."

On a personal note, several years ago I attended a symposium for U.S. Soccer National Instructors for the National Coaching Schools. We of course had both class and field sessions at the symposium. During one of the field sessions held at the Air Force Academy soccer fields, Gordon Miller ran a session on 2 v 2. I was in one of those pairs and Jimmy was in the other and of course it often fell to me to cover Jimmy. If you've not seen Jimmy play I can tell you that he's really smooth with the ball, complete opposite of me. So, during the activity there were times when Jimmy dribbled straight at me showing me a bit of the ball. I'd look for my moment and would go for the ball, just to have Jim move himself and the ball ever so slightly out of my reach and then he was gone. Jimmy is eight years older than me and I thought I should be able to deal with these 1 v 1 moments. After the activity was over and Jimmy had skated past me at least four times, I went for a drink. Bobby Howe got me aside and said, "Don't worry about it Sam. Jimmy does that to full internationals." Well the only thing international about me is my passport. From those object lessons and the sessions that Jimmy conducted during that symposium I pick up many golden nuggets from the man.

I have always found Jimmy to be a class act in the coaching of our game and real gentleman off the field too. If you like to read more about Jimmy Conway, click here