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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.

 

Specialize in One Sport?

Sam Snow

The executive director for US Youth Soccer, Jim Cosgrove, was interviewed for an article for the May issue of SportsEvents Magazine on the issue of kids specializing in one sport -- and sometimes a single position – at a very young age (8-13). I think you'll be interested in the questions and comments.
 
1. Are you seeing a lot of kids specializing in one sport at an early age? If so, has this been increasing, decreasing or stayed about the same over the past few years?
JC: Yes there are children being asked to specialize in one sport and even one position early in their careers. My educated estimation is that the number of kids specializing early has increased over the last five years as participation in youth sports has increased over that time.
 
2. If you are seeing this trend, why do you think it is happening?
JC: The trend occurs because parents and/or coaches believe it will accelerate the youngster's development. They use examples from individual sports such as golf or gymnastics where early specialization can be appropriate and they apply that model to team sports. All team sports are classified as long-term development sports, so children should not specialize in only one sport until perhaps the late teenage years.
 
3. What do you consider to be the pros and cons of early specialization in sports?
JC: I cannot think of any pros to early specialization. The cons include poor athletic development, over-use injuries, emotional exhaustion and psychosocial burn-out. The too much-too soon syndrome also causes a jaded attitude toward the sport to develop by the mid to late teens.
 
4. At what age is specialization a good thing?
JC: Sports specialize too early in an attempt to attract and retain participants. 17-years-old and beyond is appropriate for specialization in a single sport. For soccer, position versatility is still important even at this age and especially for field players.
 
5. Can you provide some common sense recommendations to parents (and kids) who may believe that by focusing on one sport at a young age they will get college scholarships or become professional athletes?
JC: Approximately 2% of youth soccer players will earn a college scholarship to play soccer. Let your child play soccer to his or her content without an expectation for the big payoff of an athletic scholarship – there's much more money available for academic scholarships than athletic ones.
 
In conclusion, sports can be classified as either early or late specialization. Early specialization sports include artistic and acrobatic sports such as gymnastics, diving, and figure skating. These differ from late specialization sports in that very complex skills are learned before maturation since they cannot be fully mastered if taught after maturation.

Most other sports are late specialization sports. However, all sports should be individually analyzed using international and national normative data to decide whether they are early or late specialization.  If physical literacy is acquired before maturation, athletes can select a late specialization sport when they are between the ages of 12 and 15 and have the potential to rise to international stardom in that sport.

Specializing before the age of 10 in late specialization sports contributes to:
• One-sided, sport-specific preparation
• Lack of ABC's, the basic movement and sports skills
• Overuse injuries
• Early burnout
• Early retirement from training and competition

For late specialization sports, specialization before age 10 is not recommended since it contributes to early burnout, dropout and retirement from training and competition (Harsanyi, 1985).
 

Technique and Injury

Sam Snow

A coach from the Midwest had these comments and question about a soccer injury.

"I've had a client come to me with some injury/rehab issues attributed to ball striking and playing the long ball. This is a U-14 elite player with over developed quads, extremely tender hamstrings and poor gait. Her physical therapist and I are trying to find some research on this and then document our process. I've been doing a lot of work with players on ball striking and athletic development which is why they came to me, but I've never seen such poor mechanics and extreme injury at such a young age.
Are there any resources on this matter?"

I then posed the question to Dr. Don Kirkendall of FIFA F-MARC. He is also a regular presenter at the US Youth Soccer adidas Workshop. Here's his reply:

"I am not sure what injury they are asking about as 'tender hamstrings' doesn't tell me much. This could be part of the recovery process from a strain injury, delayed soreness from unaccustomed activity, or microtrauma from such processes as overstretch or weakness or the poor technique. Without a better description, I'd only be speculating.

An imbalance between quad and hamstring strength is an issue on a number of fronts. Most of the discussion is around injury which the Physical Therapist of this email would be aware of. But poor hamstring strength could also impair technique.

Some of it might be bound up in the male/female differences in kicking. Men approach the ball faster than women and then have a slower angular knee extension velocity than women. Thus women make up for the slow approach by extending the leg faster in an attempt to gain ball velocity. But this puts the knee at risk for extension injury. Could stronger hamstrings help? A good question. Hamstring strengthening has been advocated for reducing strain injury, especially at the highest levels of play in men, and been very successful.

On the strength-skill interaction, during ballistic movements, the hamstring muscles contract to prevent over/hyper extension of the knee. Weak hamstring muscles, which slow down terminal knee extension during kicking, could lead to a number of different sources of knee pain during kicking. So, the player would alter the kicking motion to compensate for the weak hamstring muscles and avoid the pain. She might try to approach faster and use less knee extension. Or she could be kicking mostly from the hip and not rapidly extending the knee. Or she could be doing everything else well right up until the point in the kicking cycle when it's time to extend the knee forcefully. Both would reduce the stress across the knee near forceful extension and avoid pain, but her ability at 'striking and playing the long ball' would be reduced. Try kicking hard with a straight leg.

Of course, there could be structural or other soft tissue issues at the knee that could be the source of pain and poor technique.

Here is a male/female comparison of kicking kinematics that Bill Barfield did that might be helpful. 
There may be references at the end they might find helpful."
 

Being a Good Coach

Sam Snow

Enjoy this insight from our former Women's National Team coach Greg Ryan on being a good coach.

Coaching players to develop to their full potential is more of an art than a science. Each aspect of player development must be addressed at the appropriate time and reinforced until it becomes second nature to the young player. The coach must allow the player the freedom to develop by learning from millions of experiences. The coach must resist the temptation to interrupt the players, realizing that learning takes place by experiencing the game.

Good coaches will create sessions in which the players are constantly playing the game whether it is 1
vs. 1 or up to 11vs. 11. The exercises will look and feel just like the real game. The players will love these coaches for giving them back the game and allowing them to express themselves on the field. They will develop players who "feel" the game, rather than players who only "think" the game.

Good coaches provide feedback throughout the session usually without stopping the flow of play. Sometimes, they are cheerleaders, just shouting…."great pass".   Sometimes, they have a quiet word in the flow of play to give a player an idea about how to solve a problem on the field. When they see a universal problem, they will stop the session, sort it out and restart as soon as possible.

A good coach does not try to solve every problem in each session. They understand that development whether individual or team is a long term process. They also understand that players can only assimilate a little information at a time, so they choose their comments carefully. In the end, it does not matter what the coach knows or says it only matters what the players can receive and implement.

The best chance a coach has to develop a player is to insure that they love the game. The best way to do this is to let them play the game.
 

Development

Sam Snow

In 2005, an operations manual was developed for the state technical directors. Here is an excerpt from Chapter 2: Job Responsibilities and the section on player development.

Development - The act or process of developing; unfolding; a gradual growth or advancement through progressive changes…

The truth is the majority of young players become what they were always going to be largely by their own efforts and a lot of straightforward encouragement. Playing an extraordinary number of matches will not alter that fact. Playing in more tournaments and conducting more or longer training sessions will not change this reality either.

Approximately one tenth of one percent will make it onto a National Team be it Youth, Olympic or the full National Team. According to the NCAA, only half of one percent of all college athletes will make it onto a professional team in any sport. The NCAA also estimates that only two percent of all high school players in all sports will go on to play college sports. The majority of players will come to full blossom as a player once in their 20's. Soccer is a long term athletic development sport. Starting to play on "teams" when barely out of diapers will not amend the time needed to grow physically and psychologically to become an accomplished player.

Since it will take approximately 20 years for a soccer player to develop, then a gradual stair step approach to playing adult soccer must be taken. While the players are in primary and secondary school the adults caring for their soccer experience and controlling their soccer environment must be patient with an eye to long term goals as well as short term objectives.

Fostering a love for the game and allowing talent to develop in a sane environment means a reasonable number of matches and training sessions for the age group, not the level of competition. The idea that, the game is the great teacher, has been misunderstood and/or misapplied. Some think if the axiom is true then more games are better. In fact the opposite is true – fewer games are better for youngsters. The axiom means the game will show a player how they have progressed. The game teaches players, through exposure, their strengths and weaknesses. Teach them how to play the game before they are asked to compete for wins. Let them play matches to learn how to compete and how to play in their pre-adolescent years. Eliminate State, Regional and National championships prior to age 15.

Sports do not build character. They reveal it.
- Haywood Hale Brown