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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.

 

US Youth Soccer Region I Premier League finals

Sam Snow

This past weekend I attended the US Youth Soccer Region I Premier League finals at the Kirkwood Soccer Club in Newark, DE. Both boys and girls competed in the Under-14 to the Under-19 age groups. I went to these matches to make a technical analysis of the strengths and weaknesses of the players in each age group. Well despite heavy rain the day before the matches the fields were in great shape. The local volunteers did a great job of hosting the event and getting the fields ready for top notch competition.
 
I observed quite a few aspects of performance with the players and their coaches. By and large the coaches were quite professional in their conduct. Only a few over coached from the bench or repeatedly got in the ref's face. Yet that is still too many and as professionals we can do better! My only other critique in this space on the coaching is the observation that while warm-ups were very well done the cool-downs were quite suspect; if they happened at all. Given that the teams all had second match on the Sunday this crucial part of regeneration must not be overlooked!
 
Briefly in this blog I'll touch only on two aspects of the players' areas for improvement. First is the question of why we feel that we need to play so fast? Frequently in these matches the players tried to perform beyond their technical speed. These were good players mind you! Yet too often for players of this caliber they lost the ball easily due to rushing their play. Going hand in hand with this shortcoming was the lack of any tactical change in the rhythm of play. We need players who know when and why to put their foot on the ball and change the pace of the game.
 
So one other item among several for us to address in our player development is the way players act or in fact don't act at a goal kick. Consistently when a goal kick was being taken all of the field players stood still waiting for the ball. Of course this was fine for the defenders who simply stood next to their mark. For the attackers though this stagnant approach makes creating an attack much more difficult. By being still with a defender on you means every goal kick is a 50/50 ball. If instead they made runs to create space and shake markers then the odds of generating a good attack improve.
 
Well there are a few observations on aspects of the American game that we can improve.
 
 

Improving your non-dominant foot

Sam Snow

Recently a coach sent this question to me:
 
þ What's the best advice, drill or technique you can offer to players to improve their skills with their off foot?
 
Being able to play the ball with both feet is just as important in soccer as being able to do so with both hands in basketball. It is important for soccer players to be adequately skillful with the non-dominant or ""off"" foot. To become skillful with the non-dominant foot merely requires some self-discipline and mental focus on the part of a player. Some players, especially around 8 to 12 years of age will react with an ""I can't"" response when asked to play with the non-dominant foot. At this point the attitude of the coach is crucially important as the confidence to work on new ball skills and to overcome the fear of failure can be set for better or worse. The coach must respond patiently by asking the player to say ""I'll try"" and then looking for any improvement to praise. Here are some practice ideas:
 
  • When practicing ball skills on your own, such as dribbling through cones or passing and receiving against a wall, do twice as many repetitions with the non-dominant foot as you do with the dominant foot.
  • The two-color sock game is a fun way to develop skills with the non-dominant foot in a match. Pick one day per week as the day when all players on your team wear one light colored sock and one dark colored sock. During a scrimmage all players must play the ball only with the non-dominant foot (light colored sock). If a ball is played with the dominant foot an indirect free kick is given to the defending team. The two sock colors make it easy for the players and coaches to see which foot is being used.
  • With the same idea have goalkeepers wear a different type or color of gloves to distinguish the dominant and non-dominant hands.
  • When practicing ball juggling begin to ask the players to lift the ball from the ground with the non-dominant foot to start juggling. Be patient as often even their body balance will be poor when playing the ball with the non-dominant side.
  • Conduct a scrimmage and put one or two players on their non-dominant side of the field. So righties go on the left side of the field and lefties go on the right. Do this though with only a few players at a time so that the natural rhythm of the game is not diminished.
  • Play soccer tennis where only the non-dominant foot can be used. So you can set the game up on the field using low nets or team benches or a couple of trash cans with tape or rope strung between the two cans.
  • Play a regular volleyball game where only the non-dominant hand can be used to spike the ball or to serve it.
 
The best approach for a club is to have a well designed curriculum for player development. A core principle of the curriculum being that from Under-6 onward kids are encouraged to use both sides of the body for dribbling, passing , receiving, shooting, throwing, deflecting and catching. In this way the actions are natural movements for the growing player. For the older player (Under-17 and older) the goal is to be good with the non-dominant side and ""magic"" with the dominant side.
 

Is coach doing a good job?

Sam Snow

Proper player development leads to good match performance, which often leads to wins.

But there are shortcuts to winning, particularly with players younger than high-school age. Just get the biggest, fastest kids around -- then outrun and outmuscle the opposition.

Play run-n-gun and high-pressure defense against young players who are still learning the game and that amount of pressure can win games. Mind you, it doesn't help those kids learn how to play soccer in any sophisticated manner.

It is certainly the stance of US Youth Soccer to focus more on match performance than outcome; yet this is not to say that players should not strive to win. There's nothing wrong with winning!

But remember, the outcome of the game is not necessarily a measure of whether the coach is doing a good job developing players. Players and coaches should diligently work to improve their performance. This is the drive for excellence as opposed to superficial success.

All right, fine you say. So how do we measure success?

How do parents know if the team coach is doing a good job of teaching soccer to the players? How does the novice coach know if the kids are growing within the game?

These are the goals in measuring success for youth soccer:

SHORT TERM
FUN ... do the players smile and laugh? Do the players look forward to playing? The first question from the player's family should be, "Did you have fun today?"

Fair Play ... does a player demonstrate by words and actions a sense of sportsmanship?

Rules of the Game ... do the players know and follow the rules of soccer?

Health and Fitness ... are the players physically fit enough to meet the fitness demands of the game? Are they developing good nutrition and hydration habits befitting an athlete?

Friendships ... are the players creating new friends within the team and with players from other teams?

Skills ... are the players demonstrating a growing number of ball skills and are they gradually becoming more proficient in those skills?


LONG TERM
Commitment ... how do the players answer when asked at the end of a game, "Did you try your best?"

Roles in the Team ... more important than learning a position, are the players learning about positioning? Knowing where the center forward spot is on the field is important, yet learning how to move tactically within the game is far more important. Do all of the players get exposed to playing all of the positions?

Leadership ... are players being given the opportunity to take on leader roles and responsibilities? Are the coaches and team managers teaching leadership?

Tactics ... are the players experimenting with new tactics in matches? The coaches must teach new tactics to the players in training sessions and then allow them to try out the tactics in a match, regardless of how that might affect the outcome!

Retention ... do the players come back year after year? Retention is recognized as also a short-term measure of success in youth soccer and developing well adjusted citizens is another long-term measure of success in youth sports.

We know that is takes many years to develop into a quality soccer player. Indeed, that continued development can be seen even in young professional players.

Soccer is a long-term development/late specialization sport.

Research by Dr. Istvan Balyi and others provides us this model:

LATE SPECIALIZATION MODEL
1. FUNdamental Stage - ages 6-9
2. Learning to Train - ages 8-12
3. Training to Train - ages 11-16
4. Training to Compete - ages 15-18
5. Training to Win - ages 17 and older
6. Retirement/Retainment - ages: post playing career

Striving to improve individual, group and team performance is more important at the youth level than the score line. Simultaneously, players should play to win.

Coaches should teach and develop the players as they learn how to win. Parents should support the players and coaches. Intrinsic success is by its nature more difficult to measure than extrinsic success.

A trophy is more tangible to an adult than the exhilaration a child feels while playing soccer. The final measure of success for parents and coaches of the children's soccer experience will require a good deal of patience from the adults. That measurement is the free choice of the child to stay in the game!

The full document on this topic, titled Vision, is available from US Youth Soccer. Simply email your request to Sam Snow at ssnow@usyouthsoccer.org.
 

Youth Sports Scheduling

Sam Snow

At the end of last week I attended a Roundtable with the American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM). The topic was Youth Sports Scheduling – Children at Risk. We met in Atlanta for a day and half to begin the fact finding work for ACSM to publish a Statement Paper on the physical and mental impact on youth players of being over scheduled. The main focus was tournaments and the impact of repeated bouts of exercise with insufficient recovery time between the bouts.
 
Presentations were made by sports medicine physicians, pediatricians, exercise physiologists, kinematic researchers, a sports psychologist and nutritionist.   Many of these scientists are former athletes and several are not only sports parents, but also coach in the youth ranks. Their sports included tennis, soccer, ice hockey, baseball and wrestling. Indeed the drive behind their current efforts is in response to the extremes they see taking place in youth sports with their children and at the tournaments they work as a medical team.
 
The presentations included "Youth Sports Governing Bodies Current Guidelines for Tournament Play and Examples of Event Schedules", "Prior Exercise and Heat Exposure Effects on Subsequent Physiological Strain", "Nutrient Recovery Challenges During Multiple Competition Bouts", "Effects of Recovery Time and Fatigue on Kinematics and Injury Risk", "Effects of Multiple Same-Day Repeated Bouts on Overuse Injury Risk", "Bone Health Risks for the Adolescent Athlete", and "Psychological Aspects of Recovery Time and Fatigue on Injury Risk".
 
I have to say that while soccer has many shortcomings in our scheduling that we must address we are not nearly as far off center as the evidence shows is occurring in other sports in the USA. Young bodies are being put under needless distress. Often the decision to put teenagers and children into these circumstances is to make more money. We must not generate the cash to run our clubs and pay our employees off the backs of the kids if we create environments that hurt player development and the enjoyment of the beautiful game.
 
Tournaments are fine provided they follow reasonable schedules that put the welfare of the payers first. Here is the Position Statement from the 55 US Youth Soccer State Technical Directors on the matter. We believe that excessive play at competitive tournaments is detrimental to individual growth and development, and can serve to reduce long-term motivation. Do not multiple matches being played on one day and one weekend have a negative effect on the quality experience and development of the individual player? Further far too many playing schedules include so many tournaments and matches that there is never an "off season." We believe that players under the age of 12 should not play more than 100 minutes per day, and those players older than 13 should not play more than 120 minutes per day. 

We also recommend to tournament managers and schedulers:
The players should be allowed ample rest between matches.
That all tournament matches be of the same length and that no full-length match be introduced during play-off rounds.
Kickoff times allow players a reasonable opportunity to prepare for competition. This encompasses rest and recovery, nutrition and adequate time to warm-up and stretch after traveling a long distance in addition to taking into consideration extreme environmental conditions.

The ACSM Position Statement on tournament scheduling will be made public in 2009 after more research is done.