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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.

 

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
 

Juggling

Sam Snow

An interesting thought was sent to me recently from Shawn Wilson concerning the skill of juggling the ball as a part of player development. I think it is a good look at juggling and opens us up for some discussion. While this matter is not a huge one in youth soccer, it does point us toward more effort in training sessions on ball skills. So the inquery was this:

I would love to hear your take on the relative importance of juggling on the thighs. I think it is over emphasized amongst youth soccer players. I see value in encouraging players to spend time with the ball, but I also think that allowing/encouraging players to demonstrate juggling that is dominated by the thighs is counterproductive to developing players with true touch and control for the game.

Now here's the passage from Shawn which prompted our dialogue:

My son recently joined a highly competitive U-11 classic team. His new coach at the first training session asked him what his juggling record is to which he told the coach "67". The coach did not give any positive feedback but instead pointed out that two players on the team are over 100, and one of which is actually over a 1,000, quite impressive indeed. Further discussion on the topic revealed that of those 1,000 touches, the vast majority (over 80 percent estimated) were with the thighs. This is not uncommon amongst youth soccer players. Juggling on the thighs is very prevalent to the point of dominating juggling, especially when a total count is the emphasis. 

My wife was observing the interaction and as the conversation continued felt compelled to point out that with our son we do not "count" thigh touches. To clarify, with my players I encourage them to use the thighs as a controlling surface but try to keep them from fixating on thigh to thigh juggling. When addressing juggling with my team I set up contests in a variety of ways. When going for simple total counts, I only allow feet and head to count, but all legal surfaces (including thighs) are in play for keeping the streak going. We also focus on juggling activities that force the player to move the ball from surface to surface on command (such as "climb the mountain" or juggling "h-o-r-s-e"). 

When my wife pointed this out to the coach, the coach got somewhat defensive and countered that, "a lot of the game is played on the thighs". Perhaps my wife should not have offered any response, but she did so in an effort to preserve my son's confidence in front of his new teammates. 

The fact is that not much of the game is played on the thighs at all. Just this morning I am watching Chelsea and Manchester United in the FA Community Shield. These are two of the best teams in the world, loaded with highly skilled players. Through 73 minutes, I observed the ball played off the thigh once. That's right, one time! Chelsea's right wing used his thigh to settle the ball to the floor near minute 26 from a pass played in the air to him. Furthermore, I have never seen a high level player move the ball from thigh to thigh in a match or even move the ball thigh to thigh while juggling or warming up. 

Ronaldinho, when in his prime, demonstrated the best ball control in the world. Viewing video of him reveals that for 2-3 minutes of juggling, he plays the ball off his thighs 1-2 times, and never does he move the ball thigh to thigh.

Perhaps, all of this comes across as a little hard core on my part. It is. But I do appreciate the skill and concentration required to juggle a ball thigh to thigh for several hundred touches. And if a young player can do this, then it should be recognized as an impressive achievement. But the point I am making is that focusing on thigh juggling to that degree is a mistake. Juggling is only valuable if it ultimately improves a player's touch (especially first touch) and control within the actual game of soccer. For this reason, young players should be encouraged to juggle primarily with their feet (preferably both feet).

Here's the response I sent:

I agree with you that juggle is a means to an end. The end being more confidence with the ball, improved balance and limb control, visually getting better at reading the spin, flight and bounce of the ball and finally to learn controlled impact with the ball to either settle or propel it (touch on the ball). Do Americans who juggle do so on the thigh too much? Quite likely so. I feel though that this issue is less of a problem than the fact that too little juggling is taught or encouraged by coaches in the first place. I think that juggling is a useful tool for improving in many of the areas mentioned above. Juggling can also be a good warm-up and/or cool-down activity. So let's get more young players out there learning how to lift the ball and then to juggle it. And yes, please encourage touches up and down the body. Even the juggling tricks, while not used in a match, help to build confidence. That confident attitude of a player's mastery of the ball is invaluable to quality match performance. Finally, on the note of one's record of juggles in a row, I do not see a practical need for anything over 100. After that record is achieved juggling becomes an end in itself and not the means to improvement in the areas mentioned in the second sentence above.