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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.

 

Once you know it all

Sam Snow

This past weekend I attended the 2nd annual state coaching symposium for the Wyoming State Soccer Association. The symposium weekend included the coaching session, both classroom and demonstrations. There was also a state assignor course for referees, US Youth Soccer Olympic Development Program training for the boys and girls and the Annual General Meeting for the state association. It was a weekend packed with wonderful soccer activities and folks from all around the state joined in the fun. This is quite impressive given the geographic size of Wyoming and the distances people must travel to participate in any soccer activity.
 
Two weeks ago, I was in Maryland working with coaches at the Icebreaker clinic. In both cases, and in states that are 1,600 miles apart, volunteers and paid coaches took the time and made the effort to continue developing their coaching craft. I was impressed and pleased by the commitment of these coaches to learn more about the game and how to coach. These are the sort of folks upon whom the game grows. They do not assume they know it all just because they have played the game or coaches for a number of years. They are eager to learn more and actively seek insights from other coaches. The dedication of these coaches to continually improve themselves so that they can coach other people's children is remarkable. They sacrifice time from their own families and jobs to do something good for the soccer community. All of these coaches, especially the volunteers, should be applauded!
 
The experience of the coaching clinics and symposia brings up the question of who's coaching our kids. Too often clubs accept a warm body to coach because they are often in dire need of a coach for a team. Yes, we do need coaches for the teams so that the kids can play, but why do we allow some to continue to coach without any coaching education. As a parent we would not send our children to a school where the teachers had no qualifications to teach. Parents are the customers of a soccer club in that they pay the fees. The players are the consumers of a soccer club as they partake of the services of a soccer club. The players are the ones in the club in order to receive a soccer education.
 
The leaders of a soccer club have an obligation to the consumers to push the coaches in the club to continually improve their craft. The customers of the club should expect and demand this effort from the club. If we raise through education the abilities of the average coach then we directly raise the caliber of play in the USA. We quite likely then also keep more kids playing soccer longer into their teenaged years. So for a soccer club the continuing education of its coaches and administrators means better retention of the consumers and therefore the customers too. This can only improve the health of soccer.
 
It's what you learn after you know it all that counts.
-John Wooden
 
 

East-West-South

Sam Snow

I had the pleasure to watch a US Youth Soccer Region I league match this weekend. Two U17 boys teams put on a technically sound and athletic game. But tactically it was not the game it should or could have been. Like too many American youth teams the attacking movement was too linear. Often this is seen when teams play forward too soon and too often. It is a game that becomes full field kickball. That approach to offense in our youth game is recognized not just by the run n' gun style, but also by regular turnovers of possession. Both teams do it and so chances at scoring rely too much on the through ball.
 
Now with these two U17 teams the issue was not an over-reliance on through balls to generate offense. In fact being skillful players they were able to posses the ball to build attacks. What became the tactical downfall in the game was too much possession. Passes were still being made laterally on the field and chances for penetrating passes were missed. The teams had moments when they played possession for the sake of possession. The moments when a pass could be made going forward to be a threat to the opposing defense were missed. Tactical vision leading to recognizing the moment to go at goal was not developed to the extent it should have been for such a good group of players.
 
Tactically speaking there are only two types of passes in a soccer match. They are possession passes and penetrating passes. The trick of quality soccer is finding the right balance between the two types of passes. Technically there are many ways to make these passes. Further there are only two tactical reasons to make possession passes. One is to relieve pressure when the opponents are pressing you hard. The other reason is to create angles and space to make a penetrating pass. The last reason is why passes are made east, west and south; in order to be able to go north. While soccer fields are laid out with the goals on the north and south ends of the field from a tactical perspective we train players to think that square or lateral passes are east-west and back passes are south (towards your own goal) and north is towards the opponents goal. Hence east-west-south passes are possession passes and north passes are penetrating passes.
 
While occasionally a team will play possession (keep-away) soccer when they are leading as a ploy to eat up the clock, the main reason for possession play is to create the opportunity to penetrate into the attacking third. Once in the attacking third then look to strike at goal quickly.
 
So the take away message for me from that league match was to teach our players when and why to play possession soccer and when and why to play penetration soccer. Both must be done during a match and the player who can anticipate play rather than just react to what just happened is the one who can make good decisions on penetration or possession.
 

Action Plan

Sam Snow

Last night a friend and coaching colleague of mine called to talk about his first Over-40 match. He said the match was going well and was becoming more and more competitive as the minutes ticked by. In the middle of the second half one of his teammates collapsed on the pitch. Everyone stopped and went to help him, a 911 call was made, and people looked for aspirin but couldn't find any. Does anyone know CPR? All hesitated, but finally did act. Before the ambulance could arrive he died of a heart attack.
 
Needless to say this greatly upset my friend. Seeing a teammate die on the field in front of you has quite an impact. The men in their forties who moments before heatedly contested a soccer game turned in an instant to a collective group working to save a comrade's life. Sports and the win at all costs mentality disappeared and life came into perspective for those adults playing in and watching this match. No matter how deep our passion for soccer may be it is after all just a game. What's most important in soccer are the people in soccer.
 
As our conversation went on last night my friend said that the man who is his assistant coach with the U14 team they coach was also playing in this match. The situation caused them to talk to each other about what they would do if something catastrophic happened during one of their training sessions or matches. So we discussed having an action plan. Every coach MUST have an action plan for injuries and emergencies. This is both risk management and first aid in nature.
 
Most coaches are quite good about having a first aid kit at practice and games. Is it checked regularly to be sure it is stocked correctly? Is it always with the coach's equipment? Everyone today has a cell phone and the coach must have his or hers near the first aid kit. It may not be a long run back to the car to use your phone in an emergency, but by having the phone with you on the field you can make the 911 call sooner and you can stay with the players to manage the situation. So the coaches must have a plan. If a serious injury or an emergency occurs who will call and direct emergencies services? Who will be the first aid giver? Who will supervise the rest of the players? Do you have an emergency contact for the injured person? Do the players, coaches, parents, team manger or anyone with the team have ICE in their phone? Where do we go in case of a sudden thunderstorm? What is our plan in case of heat stroke? Obviously there can be more questions to ask and answer in your action plan. The coaches and team manager need to have this discussion and make a plan. Part of the plan is a survey of the skills of the parents of a youth team. Who has medical qualifications of any sort? How might the other adults be able to assist the coaches in a real emergency?
 
One other thing that came up in our conversation last night is that coaches taking coaching courses may tune out a bit when the presentation is made on prevention and care of injuries and risk management. The thought goes through the head of many candidates of yes, yes that's fine now can we get on with going to the field to work on tactics? The coach is not fully in the moment during the course when crucial information is being presented that will assist the coach when an emergency occurs. So not only should a coach take coaching courses to learn more about soccer but also attend a first aid and CPR course. When that person collapses on the field with a heart attack is not the time to lament not having gone to the course.
 
The bottom line my friends is to be prepared to the best of your ability and have an action plan!
 

Short- or Long-Term Solutions

Sam Snow

I spent the morning here on Presidents Day watching some good Under-18 and Under-16 matches. Overall the level of play is good, although there is still too much run and gun style of offense. In all I saw 15- and 17-year-olds play like…well like teenagers. There's nothing terribly insightful about that except that they play an awful lot like the teenagers of 15 years ago. Our style of offense over the last 15 years has settled into a linear game; lots of passes north/south or east/west. Straight line passes…not many diagonal passes or diagonal dribbles or diagonal off the ball runs.

Consequently, the defending tends to be one-on-one or recovery runs onto through balls. Not a whole lot of block defending or team defending tactics is being demonstrated. And all of this is from some of the best club teams in the country that I watched today. This is not to say that it was all high level kickball. A few matches, and a few moments in other matches, were good soccer. But why is that we are no more sophisticated in our skills or tactics than 15 years ago?

Why is it that now considerable effort is being focused on level 2 of the U.S. Soccer player development pyramid? Well certainly these players deserve the attention and effort being put into their development as future professional and national team players. This is fine as it helps strengthen the fabric of our game in the USA. Yet it seems to me to be a short-term solution to a long-term challenge. Trying to considerably improve the game of a 17-year-old may be a little too late in the player development timetable. Even for a 15-year-old the odds are beginning to lean towards what you have now in playing tendencies is what the player will have five years from now.

The energy and money should instead be poured into level 1 of the player development pyramid. These are the childhood and pubescent players. If we considerably improve their soccer environment then the odds improve for us to develop talented players. This will take time though to see the fruits of the labor. Ten years? Twenty years? A generation? This means the adults must be patient. That's quite a challenge for some and doesn't always fit into a political agenda. However the only way the USA will produce truly world class soccer players is with long-term player development. So the money and effort should go into raising the standard of coaching at the recreational level. Parent education on player development within a team sport must be delivered every season in every soccer park in the nation. If we are truly serious about competing internationally then get the best coaches we have working with preteen players now. When we improve the early soccer experiences of these young players then more of them will stay with soccer. If we reduce the drop-out rate then our number of participants increases and the odds then improve for us to produce more high caliber players.

Ask any house builder and they will tell you that the walls and roof are quite important but that the single most important part of the building is the foundation. With a solid foundation we will support our game for generations to come.