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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.

 

Grassroots Soccer

Sam Snow

Recently I've had some correspondence with Nick Levett from the The Football Association. Nick is the National Development Manager for Youth and Mini-Soccer in England. He had inquired about the status of Small-Sided Games in the U.S.A. So, I thought you'd be interested to read of the progress being made on this topic from both sides of the pond.

Hi Sam,

I hope you are well and enjoying the delights of fall setting in.  

I have now officially started a new job as National Development Manager (Youth and Mini-Soccer) and looking into a number of things that probably cross paths with your role. The main two areas of work that are going to be driving my attention are around formats of football and a competition strategy in England. We have a number of issues with pitch sizes, numbers of players per team in different age groups as well as trying to be creative to approach dealing with the birth bias challenges!

For example, we now have every format of football on offer for children from 7 years of age including Manchester United playing 4v4 in their Academy, grassroots mini-soccer offering 5v5/6v6/7v7, most professional clubs playing 8v8 from U-9 to U-11, then we have 9v9 as an option from U-11 to U-13, but most people choose to play 11v11 from U-11….!!! We have a bit of a mix!

What's the current situation in the U.S.? Do grassroots and professional clubs play the same structure at the same age groups? What does your Association recommend and how well does this get delivered at a local level? What age do your grassroots teams start to play in leagues for points and trophies?

Interested to hear your thoughts on this one!

Best wishes, Nick
 
Here's my response.

Hi Nick,

Congratulations on the new job and I'm sure you are working diligently getting the new responsibilities underway.

We are having many of the same issues you are in regard to Small-Sided Games (SSG). One of our challenges is that our national governing body, U.S. Soccer, has not mandated SSG. However they do endorse the playing format for U-12 and younger. Take a look at the Best Practices for Coaching Soccer in the United States document via this link.  U.S. Soccer is now making an effort to implement these Best Practices nationwide.

Also look at the SSG Resource Center on the US Youth Soccer web site via this link.  The National Program Overview will show you how we are doing on implementation. For largely political reasons, we do not yet have uniform implementation nationwide. Although it must be stated that the hurdles are not just political as many folks are convinced that children will not learn how to play 11-a-side football if they do not do so by the U-12 age group. There are other reasons too for the reluctance to embrace SSG, such as "well in my country when I was a lad we played 11v11 football and we were just fine." They could be from Scotland, Argentina, Italy, or England, you name it they're here. The only problem is they are unaware of the changes going on in their former homeland.

Now, to the professional clubs, the system of them having youth teams is much less prevalent here than in Europe; so a few of the MLS teams have youth teams, but not all. WPS is a new league and they cannot afford to sponsor youth teams right now. Some of the youth teams with pro teams do play SSG, but most simply follow the local formats. However some of the clubs, such as FC Dallas, have taken on an internal development approach. Their manual is attached to this message for you (Editor's note: if you would like a copy of this manual just drop me an E-mail note and I'll send a copy to you).

When do our grassroots clubs begin to play for trophies? It varies by state association. For the majority that begins at U-12, but some do begin at U-10. We are trying to move everyone to U-12, but with other youth soccer organizations in the country competing with us in the market place it makes it doubly difficult to make such changes. If you will remind Les Howie (Editor's note: Les Howie is the Head of Grassroots Coaching for The FA) and Jamie Houchen (Editor's note: Jamie Houchen is the Acting Head of FA Learning for The FA) to ask me about these topics when they come to our 2010 US Youth Soccer adidas Workshop next February I can get into more detail.

Regards, Sam
 
And finally Nick's latest reply.

That's great Sam, thanks for the information. I'll have a read through with interest. I think we are heading towards a bit of a climax in England where we need a national look at the children's football system from all of football; not just grassroots but to include volunteers, administrators and the professional game. A radical look at implementing a modern and child-based system is needed.

And if you have any closed-minded English coaches you come across that need some 'homeland' updating I'm happy to help!

Best wishes, Nick
 

Seasonal Planning

Sam Snow

Good Games Can Be Planned. Great Games Just Happen.

The three main phases of seasonal planning are preseason, season and postseason. The youth soccer coach must also take into account other activities in which the player is engaged. These include school and extracurricular functions, other sports, the US Youth Soccer Olympic Development Program, family and social functions, religious events, Youth Soccer Month, etc. These activities will influence the player's soccer experience in one fashion or another.

The Game is the Best Teacher – MAYBE

The game does indeed teach players by showing them their strengths and weaknesses. However, too many matches in the player's schedule becomes a hindrance to development. You must strike the right balance between the number of matches played per season, the number of training sessions per season and time off.

As a coach, you need to have a schedule for the season. A seasonal plan should begin at the end. So devise your schedule from the last possible event the team could attend in that soccer year. For the U-8 team, this is likely an end of the year jamboree or soccer festival, or perhaps just the last play day on the schedule. For the U-18 team the last event could be the finals of the US Youth Soccer National Championships. Whatever the last event is plan from there back to the beginning of the season. In this way you can now see the scope of the steps you will need to take to develop the players to culminate at the final seasonal event.  Take into account match days, training days, regeneration training days, specialty training, holidays, major school events (final exams for example), planned days off and tournaments. The schedule must also reflect the rhythm[1] of training. Following are one month schedule samples that could apply to childhood, pubescent and adolescent teams.

Planned time off is vitally important to avoid over-scheduling and the fallout of overuse injuries and mental burnout. Both the players and the coaches need time off to 'recharge the batteries' and come back to soccer reinvigorated; it's possible to have too much of a good thing.
Club and high school coaches need to work together for the sake of the players on dovetailing their seasons. A week or two off between seasons for the year-round players will avoid burnout. After a little rest and relaxation you will get back a player fully charged and ready to give 100 percent. If this formula is not followed then players giving a fraction of their full potential will become the norm.

Clubs and coaches must plan a reasonable soccer year calendar for each age group. Certainly the U-6 schedule should not have the same intensity, duration and frequency of activity as the U-16 schedule. Beware of the too much too soon syndrome[2]. A symptom of the syndrome is the more is better mentality[3]. For positive player development that will last for decades, a balanced approach must be taken to the soccer calendar.  The list below covers the areas within the planning concept for which you are responsible in preparing a team to compete. All four components of soccer - fitness, psychology, tactics and technique - are incorporated into these areas and some will overlap from one area to the next.

¤ 
Periodization
          o   Peak at championship time
¤ Short-term and long-term development goals
¤ Rhythm of training [4]
¤ Over-training or under-training
¤ Tournaments – must be few and far between; you need to be very selective about when your team participates in a tournament and why
¤ Burnout – mental and physical
¤ Overuse  and chronic injuries

There are two principles of learning in physical education that you should consider in the seasonal plan for skill improvement. Your plan for training sessions each month should reflect these principles:

Principle of Distributed Practice -
In general short periods of intense practice will result in more learning than longer, massed practice sessions.

Principle of Variable Practice -
Block practice aids performance while variable practice aids in learning. Variable practice causes an increase in attention.
 
Plan your practice and practice your plan.


[1] A training session should go from low to medium to high to medium to high to low in the physical exertion demanded from the players – once exhausted little learning occurs.
[2] The misguided notion that if beginning soccer at age 5 is good then 3 or 4 is a head start. The same flawed logic often is used in beginning try-outs too soon.
[3] The misapplied idea to increase training from one hour to two or double the number of matches from fifty to one hundred.
[4] The rhythm of a season should have a balance to the level of competition – peaking with the most challenging matches at season's end.
 

Final Three Position Statements

Sam Snow

Here are the final three Position Statements of the State Association Technical Directors.

The Professional Link    No. 15

We believe that the professional level plays a necessary and vital role in the growth and development of youth and amateur soccer. In all soccer cultures, the professional level serves to provide for the vertical movement of top players and creates the conditions for national heroes to emerge. The professional influence also accounts for much of the indirect education that permeates soccer societies. Television ratings and paid attendance have a significant local and national impact on media perception and civic response. We feel that promoting professional soccer is foundational to all professional coaching positions.

Active Coaching               No. 16

We believe that top-level coaches, particularly those in administrative positions, such as club and state directors and national staff coaches must remain active practitioners. In order to gain respect and proactively affect change it is essential that coaches in leadership positions are current in their knowledge and constantly evolving their craft. In addition:
  • Soccer continues to evolve rapidly and nowhere more dramatically than at the youth level in the United States. Coaches must have practical contact with the newest trends and be well positioned to proactively test new theories against existing models.
  • Many coaching directors in the United States are in their 20s and 30s and are still developing their personal philosophy and pedagogy. If these talented young coaches are removed from their fertile learning environment before gaining the lessons of experience, the short- and long-term impact on the next generations of players will be sorely felt.
  • Personal growth stagnates without constant challenge. Each new training session is an opportunity to reaffirm or reassess existing soccer knowledge, beliefs and pedagogical skills. Each level of play provides unique coaching challenges and, in order to service the needs of players and coaches at every level, practical and ongoing contact with players of all ages and abilities is essential.
  • Top club coaches are influenced by actions, not words. To gain the confidence and respect of these coaches, it is important for the coaching director to demonstrate their knowledge and skills as a field coach. Without respect, the possibilities for positive growth and evolution within the top leagues and clubs are severely hamstrung.
  • The director of coaching is often uniquely placed to vertically integrate the technical, tactical, physical and psychological insights gleaned from the regional and national teams programs. Often, these messages can only be delivered through contact with players; this is particularly the case at the area and state US Youth Soccer Olympic Development Program (US Youth Soccer ODP) levels.
  • One of the most important messages in the coaching education process is that coaching skills evolve with use and erode through inactivity. This message is true of both experts and beginners. Coaching directors must be seen to practice what they preach.
  • The motivation for coaches to administrate can be found in the rewards of the field.
  • The vast majority of soccer coaches within the United States are parents with no formal background in the sport. The coaching director must serve as a role model and inspiration for this population by conducting clinics and workshops, and by learning to appreciate and focus the unique challenge of the parent/coach experience. This process is practical, ongoing and very demanding.
  • The director of coaching must remain connected and sensitive to the balance of competitive pressures that influence those players striving to reach the top level and those coaches making a living from the game. Competition is a necessary and important element in sport and society. Without periodic re-exposure to the stresses of intense competition, coaches in leadership positions can easily lose touch with the balance between the theoretical and the practical: X's and O's must always be grounded in the reality of the playing level.

Playing Up                          No. 17

The majority of clubs, leagues and district, state or regional US Youth Soccer ODP Programs in the United States allow talented, younger players to compete on teams with and against older players. This occurs as a natural part of the development process and is consistent throughout the world. Currently, however, there are isolated instances where the adult leadership has imposed rules or policies restricting the exceptional, young player from "playing up." These rules vary. Some absolutely will not allow it. Others establish team or age group quotas while the most lenient review the issue on a case-by-case basis. Associations that create rules restricting an individual player's option to play at the appropriate competitive level are in effect impeding that player's opportunity for growth. For development to occur, all players must be exposed to levels of competition commensurate with their skills and must be challenged constantly in training and matches in order to aspire to higher levels of play and maintain their interest in and passion for the game.

When it is appropriate for soccer development, the opportunity for the exceptional player to play with older players must be available. We believe that "club passes"" should be adopted as an alternative to team rosters to allow for a more realistic and fluid movement of players between teams and levels of play. If there is a concern regarding the individual situation, the decision must be carefully evaluated by coaches and administrators familiar with the particular player. When faced with making the decision whether the player ought to play up, the adult leadership must be prepared with sound rationale to support their decision. Under no circumstances should coaches exploit or hold players back in the misplaced quest for team building and winning championships, nor should parents push their child in an attempt to accelerate to the top of the soccer pyramid. In addition, playing up under the appropriate circumstances should not preclude a player playing back in his or her own age group. When the situation dictates that it is in the best interests of the player to do so, it should not be interpreted as a demotion, but as an opportunity to gain or regain confidence.

Some rationale for the above includes:

-     Pele played for Brazil in his first World Cup as a seventeen year old; Mia Hamm earned her first call to the U.S. Women's National Team when she was fifteen. An exceptionally talented young player playing with older players has been an integral part of the game since its inception. Certainly, a player that possesses soccer maturity beyond that of his or her peers should be encouraged to "play up" in order that his or her development as a player is stimulated.
-     The playing environment must provide the right balance between challenge and success. The best players must have the opportunity to compete with and against players of similar abilities. Players with less ability must be allowed to compete at their own level in order to enjoy the game and to improve performance.

In conclusion the development of players and advancement of the overall quality in the United States is the responsibility of every youth coach, administrator and policymaker in this country. It is our obligation to provide an environment where every player is given the opportunity to improve and to gain the maximum enjoyment from their soccer experience and ultimately, what is best for the player.
 

Question From a Coach

Sam Snow

A youth soccer coach in California had a good question posed to him by a parent of one of the club's players. It is one that I'm sure is asked on occasion in many youth soccer clubs across the country.

I had a question come up recently that I've been struggling to answer, so I thought I'd go to the gurus. I train a U-10 girl's team in California and have been trying to focus the parents on a long-term direction for the players.

One parent, however, had a simple question that stopped me in my tracks. He asked, "Why does soccer speak so much of development, when all the other sports, baseball, football, softball, hockey are competitive as can be?" Later in the conversation, he also noted that most baseball, football  and softball coaches (at the youth stages) are often times parents of one of the players.

He isn't trying to be rude or challenging. He's simply curious to know why there is all this talk about development with our sport, while the other major sports don't have such conversations and seem to be thriving just fine. And after that conversation, I am too.

Also, I'm curious to know if there has been any talk of a 2nd level National Youth Course. I can't tell you how much of an impact the USSF National Youth License made on my coaching. I took my USSF ""B"" License in January, and everyone I spoke to there who had taken their National Youth License felt the same way. The real learning and lessons we've needed as coaches is in the National Youth License. The other licenses are just padding for resumes and pay-scales. We're hoping there can be another level. I'm already planning on taking the National Youth License again in 2010.

Thanks for your time and help...

Well the simple answer is that these other youth sports do not have the formal coaching education system that soccer has. Because there is less of a formal academic based coaching education system in place for those sports it is less likely that the discussion of long-term player development will arise. It is even more difficult for them to share that message with grassroots coaches without a scheme in place for coaching classes.

Those sports may seem to be thriving, but many of the negative issues that we see in youth sports are deeper and wider in those sports than in youth soccer. This is not to say the same issues are not a part of the youth soccer experience, for they certainly are, just to a lesser degree on a national scope. I am venturing an educated guess that part of the continuing enrollment into those sports has to do with the exposure they receive from the sports media and the fact that they are just plain fun to play.

Regarding a possible National Youth License 2, Dr. David Carr is currently working on a possible curriculum for just such a course. If it comes to pass then I think it would begin to be offered at the earliest in 2011, and will be announced on www.USYouthSoccer.org.