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Sam's Blog is a bi-weekly addition to the US Youth Soccer Blog. Sam Snow is the Coaching Director for US Youth Soccer.

 

Heading

Sam Snow

Recently I had a club director ask for information on the do's and don'ts of heading in the Under-6 and Under-8 age groups. In order to help educate the members of his club he wanted to know the latest thoughts on the subject. These sorts of questions, whether they are on a technical topic such as this one or a tactical question, come up now and then. The tendency from either a coach in a club or parents of players on a team is to want to teach advanced skills or tactics to young players. The logic usually is that well it's part of the game and they will need to learn it. True…but not today.
 
By this approach the logic could be extended to say that since kids will someday be driving a car then you should have your 6-year-old practice driving back and forth in the driveway. This flies in the face of common sense. So to the question of teaching heading to Under-6 and Under-8 players - put simply … DON'T!
 
Soccer players do indeed need to learn how to head the ball. It is an important and unique skill in the game. To execute the skill correctly though requires some developed athleticism and ability to read the flight of the ball in the air. US Youth Soccer recommends that heading be introduced at the earliest in the Uner-10 age group.  Young children have great difficulty tracking moving objects, especially if they are in the air.  Most will duck or throw hands in front of the face if the ball comes toward the head.  Children younger than 10 are very reactionary in their movement behavior.  Anticipating where the ball might be played is a skill that has not yet developed.  This ability does not really develop until age nine or 10.  Prior to age nine visual tracking acuity is not fully developed.  Players have difficulty accurately tracking long kicks or the ball off of the ground.  Beginning at approximately age 10, one's visual tracking acuity achieves an adult pattern.  Even then it will take years to reach a point of being able to precisely determine the height, pace, curve and spin of a ball in the air.  How many high school players mistime headers?  There is no need to be in a rush to teach heading skill to children.  Just like geometry in school they get to it in time.
 
Heading the ball is a difficult skill to learn. When should players start? Introduce heading in the Under-10 age group. Teach heading to score and to clear in the Under-12 age group both standing and jumping. Teach heading to pass, backwards heading (flicks) and diving headers in the Under-14 age group. These age groups recommendations are the average, middle of the bell-curve so to speak. A few players may start some of these techniques earlier, especially if they have older siblings playing. Others will start latter, as their confidence grows.
 
Players who can make exact passes with the head, who can save dangerous situations at their own goal by heading the ball away and who can make use of chances at the opponent's goal by means of lightning quick headers are indispensable to their team. The ball can be headed from a standing position, on the run or by jumping up to the ball with one or both legs; the ball can be headed forwards, i.e. in the direction the player is facing, to the side and even behind.
 
Early experiences can be painful if careful progression in building up confidence is not applied. When introducing the technique of heading the ball for the first time, I suggest you start with a Nerf type soccer ball or an underinflated volleyball. Gradually work your way up to a fully inflated soccer ball. Begin with juggling with the head so that the player controls the pace, height, frequency of repetition, movement, etc.   Next go to head juggling with a partner. A good group game for heading is Toss-Head-Catch. In this activity the ball is being served from the hands, so the force is less than a crossed ball and is more accurate. The increased accuracy will allow for more repetitions of correct headers.
 
The whole body is used to head the ball. The movement begins with the legs, the movement of the stomach muscles throws the trunk and upper body forward and the head, from the neck upwards, follows through quickly. The position of the forehead to the ball determines its flight path.
 
Here are the key coaching points for the basic header:
 
Head: chin tucked in, neck stiff, never close the eyes. It is important to watch the flight of the ball until the moment of impact.
 
Upper body: brought back early into the curved position – and then snapped forward. Contact is made with the ball when the body is perpendicular to the ground.
 
Legs: bent at the knees to support the forward thrust.
 
Area of contact: middle of the forehead, sometimes the side of the forehead, never the temples or the top of the head.
 
Among young players there is a physical barrier to overcome when talking about heading and that is simply fear. The earliest and most elementary lesson about heading is never let the ball hit you. Go out and meet it, and make contact with the front part of the forehead where the skull is the thickest. You must attack the ball! You hit it, not the other way around.  The main surface of contact is of course the forehead. The ball must be struck, not cushioned. The neck and back muscles should be rigid to generate power. The part played by the eyes is important! Although it is likely that the reflex blinking action causes the eyes to be closed at the moment when the ball is struck by the forehead, players should be encouraged to watch the ball right onto the forehead; only by doing so can a player time the actual heading movement accurately. There need be no fear of danger to the eyes since they are well protected by the heavy bone structure immediately above them.
 
There is no better feeling in soccer than beating an opponent in the air to plant a header in the net. Once you have done it, there is a hunger to do it again. It is a spectacular way of scoring goals, or come to that of stopping them. Defensively it is a great thrill in consistently clearing the ball in the air, beating opposing forwards and establishing control. The young player who fails to add heading to his or her armory of skills will never go far in the game.
 

Indoor Soccer

Sam Snow

Coach Snow,

In our community, we are having friendly debates/discussions on the pros and cons of playing indoor soccer and more specifically using the walls or not. This has been a topic for discussion in many of the areas I have been in my coaching career.  I was hoping you could help me out with this topic by locating a previously written article(s) about the topic or have one of the higher ups use this topic in one of their blogs.
 
Having US Youth make a statement or share their opinions helps out a lot. I visit the US Youth Soccer website daily to read up on articles of interest and curiosity and have added the links to your blog site on ours.

Thank you for all that you do!
 
Coach Jeff Ginn
-------------------------
 
Hi Jeff,
 
This seems like a healthy debate for a club to have.  The general consensus of the state Technical Directors is that for development purposes the futsal version is preferred over the indoor soccer version played inside a hockey rink using the walls.  Yet if no other soccer playing option is available in some climates during inclement weather then indoor soccer using the walls is better than not being able to play at all, perhaps for several months in some locales. 
Below is the section on indoor soccer from the Player Development Model being written by US Youth Soccer.  The full document will be made public at the 2009 US Youth Soccer adidas Workshop in San Jose next March.  The portion reprinted below is from the first draft, so revisions may or may not be made.

One of the beauties of soccer is that the game can be played anywhere the ball can roll.  Indeed playing in a variety of conditions helps to develop more well-rounded players.  So a mix of outdoor and indoor soccer along with some variety in the type of playing surface, size of the field and type of ball used will have a positive impact on ball skills and clever play.
 
Soccer on the beach is not only great fun but certainly impacts the players' skills and physical fitness.  Players are more likely here to experiment with more acrobatic skills too.
 
At times the weather conditions dictate that soccer go indoors for some time.  Coaches must take this fact into consideration in the curriculum for player development for the club.  You could play indoor soccer inside a hockey rink type playing area using the boards or Futsal.  Some indoor facilities are large enough that fields are set up and may allow even up to 11-a-side matches.  All of these options keep players active in the game.  The same basic skills, tactics and knowledge of the game as the 11 vs. 11 outdoor game occur indoors.  Yet Futsal may offer the best compliment to player development.  One of the benefits of this version of soccer is that it can be played indoors or outside, on a dedicated Futsal court or tennis court or basketball court, so the options of where to play are better.  Young players exposed to playing Futsal show a greater comfort on the ball along with more intelligent movement off the ball.
 
The priority in Futsal is to motivate players in an environment that is conducive to learning.  The more pleasure kids derive from their participation, the more they wish to play and practice on their own.  While their instinct to play is natural, their affection and appreciation for soccer must be cultivated in a soccer rich environment.  Futsal is the foundation to such goals because it: [i]
Allows players to frequently touch the one "toy" on the field, namely, the ball.  In a statistical study comparing Futsal to indoor arena soccer with walls, players touch the ball 210% more often.
Presents many opportunities to score goals and score goals often.  With limited space, an out of bounds and constant opponent pressure, improved ball skills are required.
Encourages regaining possession of the ball as a productive, fun and rewarding part of the game {defending}.
Maximizes active participation and minimizes inactivity and boredom.  Action is continuous so players are forced to keep on playing instead of stopping and watching.
Provides a well organized playing environment with improvised fields.  Without a wall as a crutch, players must make supporting runs when their teammates have the ball.
Reflects the appropriate role of the coach as a Facilitator.  With all the basic options of the outdoor game in non-stop action mode, players' understanding of the game is enhanced.
Players enjoy the challenge of playing a fast-paced-fun-skill-oriented game that tests their abilities.  Allows the game to be the teacher!
 
 


[i] United States Futsal Federation
 

Advice to a fellow coach

Sam Snow

Hi Sam,
I have a question about formations, especially the back players.  I coach recreation Under-12 girls and we play 11 vs. 11.  All of the other teams have their four back players stand at the 25 yard line and wait for the ball to come to them.  I encourage my back players to get involved and get forward as much as the game will allow.  We have lost every game so far and our parents are requesting that we do the same because we're not winning.  Is this the way youth recreational soccer is supposed to be? Most of the girls on my team played for a different coach last year and she instructed her backs to stay 25 yards in front of the goal.
 
What do I do?  Please advise.
 
Thank you,
Jack
---------
 
Hello Jack,
 
Please do resist the urgings of the parents and instead educate them on why your approach is the correct one.  In the National Coaching Schools, one of the tactical concepts we teach is called compactness.  Essentially this means a team should move up field as a unit on the attack and move back into their half of the field to defend.  We expect everyone on the team to be involved in the attack and everyone on the team to be involved in defending.  Even with the US Youth Soccer Olympic Development Program we look for players who have the versatility to be involved on 'both sides of the ball' as the saying goes.  So we look for talented well-rounded players who can both defend and attack.
 
The approach of telling fullbacks to not move forward beyond a 25 yard mark is inhibiting those players from learning how to play the game. 
 
Coaches take this action for a variety of reasons.  Among those reasons are a lack of understanding of the tactics of soccer or a fear of failure.  Soccer, like basketball, is a game where the team moves together around the playing area.  Imagine a basketball team where some players are told to never cross the halfway line for the fear of the opponents scoring; that indeed would be a poorly played game of basketball.
 
What's most important in your situation is to teach the players about positioning.  The idea here is the distance and angles that teammates take between each other during the match.  Those distances and angles constantly change as the ball and players move around the field.  It requires anticipation and game sense from the players.  When children as young as 12-years-old are learning the sport of soccer they will make mistakes in regard to positioning.  This is simply the learning process in action.  However those mistakes may mean lost scoring opportunities in front of the opponents' goal and giving away scoring opportunities to the other team in front of your goal.  This creates fear among the coaches and supporters who often value the score line more than a well played game.  This is the fear of failure component I mentioned earlier.  Regularly the adults involved in youth sports fear losing more than the players do.  Yet winning, losing and tying are part of learning how to play the game.
 
So your challenge now is to balance short-term and long-term objectives.  For the short-term work on the team learning to respond quickly when the ball is lost to the opponents to sprint back into good defensive positions - and here I mean the entire team.  For the long-term objective work on the concept of positioning, which in the end is more important than learning positions.
 
Do not hesitate to let us know if the US Youth Soccer Technical Department can be of further assistance.
 
Keep Kicking,
Sam
 

Active Coaching and Playing Up

Sam Snow

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 20's and 30's and 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 Olympic Development Program 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 Olympic Development 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.  Exceptionally talented young players playing with older players have 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.
 
Original document compiled by Dr. Tom Turner, Director of Coaching and Player Development for the Ohio Youth Soccer Association North.
 
Supplemental documentation compiled by Sam Snow, Director of Coaching Education for US Youth Soccer.