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Parents Blog

Susan Boyd blogs on USYouthSoccer.org every Monday.  A dedicated mother and wife, Susan offers a truly unique perspective into the world of a "Soccer Mom". 

 

Basic Skills

Susan Boyd

           A quote from Mickey Mantle’s opened the film "Moneyball." "It’s unbelievable what you don’t know about the game you’ve been playing all your life." While it referred to baseball it could just as easily apply to soccer. Even the greatest players continue to refine and develop new skills. Skills build on previous skills just like any learning process. All too often coaches don’t demand that basic skills become second nature for youth players. They opt instead for less repetitious and therefore less boring practice games. Retired U.S. Men’s National Team captain Claudio Reyna recognizes that "…you can’t teach skills to an old player. Youth coaches should keep in mind that individual skills need to be nurtured at an early age. Players who haven’t mastered the fundamental skills become frustrated because the game gets too difficult for them as they move into higher levels." All too often I see players on NCAA Division I teams unable to execute these basic skills. If players want to compete successfully they have to have a first touch, an ability to trap the ball, execution of a safe and proper header, an understanding how to play off the ball, play equally well with both feet, be at least 90 minutes fit, possess the instinct to come to the ball and have an accurate pass both on the ground and in the air. Simple, right?
 
           First touch is exactly what it says. Players need the deftness to gently accept the ball on a ground pass in such a way that the ball remains close to their feet. How often have you seen a player get a pass, have it hit the foot and bounce ten feet forward where an opposing player picks it up. I argue that when people say soccer is boring it is actually because of a series of lousy first touches creates a game of ping pong without the fluid dance of a team moving the ball down the field. That dance generates the electric possibilities that put a fan’s heart in the throat. Developing that nimble first touch requires hours of. If your child plays baseball, how many infield balls are hit to the shortstop with every possible permutation of the follow-up throw? How many fly balls are hit to the outfield? Drills are an important part of development. For youth soccer, drills should take up a significant part of every practice.
 
           Trapping the ball is the ability to receive a ball in the air on either the chest or by literally trapping it between the foot and the ground. Few players do it right. When trapped on the chest it shouldn’t bounce off like a racquetball hitting a wall. Instead of bouncing the ball should be cushioned and slide down to the player’s feet. If trapping is done with the foot, it needs to end with the ball under the foot and on the ground, not 20 feet in front of the player. Again, the only way to make this skill second nature is for the coach to drill the players in proper methods with the goal being near perfection.
 
           There has been debate concerning the use of head gear to prevent concussions in soccer players and to diminish the effects that heading a ball might have. However, most players and coaches agree that learning where on the head to receive the ball and how to rotate the head properly make a header safe. Yet often players are left to instinctively develop their header technique on their own leading to injury. There are header drills that coaches can conduct to help players develop the proper techniques. 
 
           Movement off the ball may be even more important than what a player does with the ball. Samuel Eto’o, the talented Cameroon soccer player, stated that, "The most important thing for a forward is speed of thought. Top players read the game." Playing off the ball requires a player to consider what options are present and how to maximize those options by placing himself in the most advantageous spot. That ability to read the game is somewhat innate but can be taught with both film and drills. Here is where practice games can pay off, because the coach can stop play to discuss placement and have players reason out where they could place themselves on the field. As Mia Hamm says, "Failure happens all the time. It happens every day in practice. What makes you better is how you react to it." Players can learn how to turn negatives into positives if they begin to understand that more soccer is played without the ball. Learning to be patient, not to be a ball chaser and see possibilities will make every youth player stronger.
 
           Learning to play with both feet not only develops a player beyond just serviceable, but actually catapults them into the highest levels. You’ve seen players miss an open goal because they had to shift the ball to their "proper" foot giving the defense time to intervene. Or you’ve watched a ball go wildly off course because it was hit with the "wrong" foot. Playing equally well with both feet doesn’t just double a player’s value, it can quadruple it. Defensively that player can steal a ball or slide tackle from any direction. Likewise, offensively the opposing team is vulnerable from all directions when a two-footed player begins the dribble. They can’t predict where she’ll turn or how she’ll turn. Coaches can conduct drills which require players to practice with their weaker foot until they develop the strength, skill, and intuition to use both feet.
 
           Every practice should begin with fitness training. The average distance a soccer player travels during a typical 90 minute game is seven miles. So players need to be able to run seven miles without lagging and without fatigue. Players without a strong center of gravity will be easily pushed off the ball. Youth players probably won’t benefit from weight training, in fact it could do harm, because they are still growing and developing their muscle mass. They can benefit from learning how to brace, how to use their bodies to protect the ball and what foods will best develop those fledgling muscles. Once players are in high school they can consider adding supervised weight training.
 
           Kyle Rote Jr. said, "If you're attacking, you don't get as tired as when you're chasing." Learning when to come to the ball can make the difference between an attack and a chase. A player sees his teammate is going to pass to him. He sets himself up to receive the ball. Suddenly the opposing defender steps in front, steals the ball and the chase is on. Players have to learn not to root themselves in a position especially when the ball is coming to them. Often they have the mistaken idea that they are five steps closer to the goal, so running away from the goal to meet the ball is unproductive. There are drills for learning how to shield the defender from stepping in front if the player wants to stay put and drills for developing the instinct of when to step to the ball. 
 
           The biggest and most frustrating bugaboo of soccer is passing. Players seem to settle for being able to send the ball away from themselves but don’t seem to be overly concerned about where those passes land. Voted European Player of the Century in 1999 Johan Cryuff manages the Catalan National Team. He observed that, "Football is simple but the hardest thing to do is play simple football." Nothing shows that more than bad passing. Players make lousy choices because they complicate the process. The center of the field leads to the center of the goal, prompting players to erroneously assume the best bet is to pass down the middle. In fact only 33% of goals are made in the middle of the net. That leaves 67% on the sides. Add to this that 67% of those goals are achieved by aiming low means that players who approach from the sides and shoot low have the greatest chance of scoring. Passing into the opponents in the center lane of the pitch isn’t as effective and often leads to an opponent picking up the pass. Learning which shoulder of a receiver to send a ball over requires an understanding of the direction the player is moving and which side of her the defender is on. There are excellent drills both for developing accurate open field passing and defended passing.
 
           Parents should look for clubs that will develop their players by developing these skills. While playing matches is fun, it won’t correct the bad habits players have or build skills that players need. Find a club that emphasizes drills, especially in those years leading up to high school. It’s important that players can take care of the basic skills if they want to move on to the more complex aspects of the game. While these skills don’t seem all that simple, they are attainable with the necessary practice and devotion. Coaches can do only so much to give a player these skills. Like anything we learn the quality depends as much on the student as on the teacher. Manfred Schellscheidt, the German-American coach and player, makes it clear, "I don’t believe skill was, or ever will be, the result of coaches. It is a result of a love affair between the child and the ball." A player who truly wants to get better will. While drills aren’t glamorous, they do offer players a chance to move up to a more glamorous role on their team. 

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Read, Think, Play

Susan Boyd

 
            Hope Solo’s autobiography came out last week, "Solo: A Memoir of Hope" (hardcover $15.58). There is no denying that Solo has had a tough life with abandonment, reuniting with her homeless father, being famously benched in the 2007 World Cup after posting four shut-outs, and speaking out on more than one occasion to defend herself and others. The book delivers with drama, soccer insights and family dysfunction. It probably isn’t appropriate for young soccer players, but that has been addressed with a young reader’s edition titled "Hope Solo: My Story" (hardcover $9.93). While Solo has gotten her fair share of press for her book fresh off a gold medal, there are many deserving soccer books out there for young and intermediate readers that families may not be aware of. I want to detail just a few of these that you might consider as gifts for your avid soccer player. All prices are quoted from Amazon.
 
            While most kids will recognize David Beckham, Landon Donovan and Lionel Messi, there are literally scores of significant soccer players that they may not know because they don’t get to see them play very often. "A Beautiful Game: The World's Greatest Players and How Soccer Changed Their Lives" (hardcover $19.79) presents 41 players from countries as diverse as Iceland, Tunisia, and New Zealand which are not exactly soccer powerhouses. However, the commonality of passion for the sport, the various impacts on the players’ lives, and the significance of the role soccer plays in the countries and families show how soccer can move beyond "just a sport." The book is divided into various sections addressing topics such as family, pride, hope and contains numerous brilliant photos.
 
            Most soccer is played away from the stadiums and the spotlight of notoriety. Millions play every day in the streets, alleys and fields of their respective countries without regard to mega-salaries or adulation. At 16, Gwen Oxenham was the youngest NCAA Division I athlete, serving as goal keeper for Duke University. By the time she was 23, her options for playing soccer beyond college had dried up. Looking for an adventure she set out to travel the world with her boyfriend and two other friends to find soccer where it is regularly played. The result is her book "Finding the Game: Three Years, Twenty-five Countries, and the Search for Pickup Soccer" (hardcover $17.50). Her adventures show how soccer can bridge cultures, languages and religions. She played with women dressed in traditional hijab in Tehran, in an Arab against Jew game in Jerusalem, and with a group of bootleggers in Nairobi. Over the course of her travels she learned the universality of soccer etiquette (don’t talk if no one has ever seen you play) and the universality of soccer receptiveness to strangers and friends alike. There is a companion documentary she made called "[Pelada]" (which is the Brazilian word for pickup game and literally means "naked") and it is available on Netflix.
 
            Many players hear from their coaches that they need to get stronger and faster if they want to advance. It’s a tough journey from knowing that change is needed and actually creating that change. Donald T. Kirkendall holds a PhD. in exercise physiology and is a member of the FIFA Medical Assessment and Research Center in Zurich. He played soccer through college and has been an assistant coach at Ball State in Indiana. His book, "Soccer Anatomy" (paperback $15.05) details dozens of excellent exercises to improve a player’s strength, stamina and speed. Each exercise is accompanied by illustrations to show which muscles are affected as well as showing how those muscles operate in playing conditions. This is the type of book a player can refer to many times over the course of his or her soccer career to continue to develop.
 
            I have seen thousands of youth soccer games and twenty times that in hopeful players who want to move on to higher levels including playing pro. The one factor that truly separates the most significant players from the rest isn’t athleticism. Most players who achieve success in youth soccer have great athletic abilities, but without a soccer brain they begin to find themselves falling behind. Knowing where to move off the ball, knowing your options before you even receive the ball and knowing how to create space for yourself all have more to do with brain than brawn. Part of developing a soccer brain is to be a student of the game. Studying matches on TV, going to live games and reading about soccer from top coaches will give players an edge others may not have. "Developing Game Intelligence in Soccer" (paperback $16.47) by Horst Wein, a top youth coach who has been hired to revitalize or improve the national youth soccer programs of thirty-four countries, shows through both discussion and diagrams how players can be smarter on the field. he book divides into different age and skill levels so players can progress and won’t bite off more than their developmental level permits. Youth players should open a chapter, turn on a game and follow the techniques the pros use that come from the book. Every player can benefit from a rigorous physical regimen, but he or she can also benefit from training the brain. Coaches say that if you want to win at soccer play with your brain.
 
            Soccer bodies need fuel to operate at top form. Often parents have no idea what is appropriate to feed our young players to give them the best edge. There are all types of advice – carbo loading, vegan, protein shakes – and we have to become our kids’ dieticians with little or no guidance except for the fad of the day. With short breaks between tournament games or a rushed dinner schedule due to practices, fast food all too often takes the place of a good meal. Without the proper fuel all the exercise in the world won’t help a player develop enough muscle and sculpting to be the best. Sports writer Gloria Averbuch and registered dietician Nancy Clark have interviewed top  professional female players and examined their food choices. They have come up with some fantastic recipes and advice for young players in their book "Food Guide for Soccer: Tips and Recipes from the Pros" (paperback $12.47). The book contains charts showing how quantities of food can be determined and equivalencies of food types. The book also shows what is optimal for soccer players as opposed to less active people and divides by age ranges. Before even getting to the recipes, the book lays out important information such as how to hydrate, what to eat before and after practices and games and how to maintain the right body weight. The recipes are fantastic and will appeal to any player’s tastes and diet. 
 
            These books are only a sampling of what is available out there for young soccer players who have a passion for the game. I also suggest you use these as a starting point. If you look each book up on Amazon and Barnes & Noble the websites will list other books in the same genre with the "customers who bought this also bought…" heading. Therefore, you can find dozens of books just from one of these. I didn’t include any books for kids under 10, but some titles to consider would be Matt Christopher’s "Soccer Hero," Gail Gibbons’ "My Soccer Book," Mike Lupica’ "Shoot Out," Mia Hamm’ "Winners Never Quit" and "DK Reader’s: Let’s Play Soccer" by Patricia J. Murphy. All these books are under $7. You can’t go wrong encouraging your child to read, and if they read about soccer they will be improving two important parts of their lives.

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Golden Opportunities

Susan Boyd

           After winning the gold at the Olympics the US Women’s National Soccer Team will have a short rest and then embark on a victory tour of the United States beginning September 1st in Rochester, N.Y. Tickets are on sale now for the match against Costa Rica and the match against Australia September 16th in Carson, CA at the Home Depot Center (ussoccer.com then click schedules/tickets). Both games will be broadcast on NBC. While most readers won’t be in the vicinity of these games, for those who can attend they provide an opportunity for young female players to see their idols live. There is nothing like watching a game live where girls can key in on one player to see how she positions herself before receiving and after delivering the ball or to watch how the team ebbs and flows. While there is any number of men’s games players can attend, the women’s side of soccer is still growing to those levels. Nevertheless, with some creativity and determination, parents can find live games that their soccer-minded daughters can enjoy. 
 
           By the age of twelve, soccer players who aspire to play in high school should begin attending local high school games. This is an opportunity to watch what formations the coach uses, what the talent level is, and how much fun the girls are having. Going to the local high school games also creates a loyalty and passion for the program. This can translate into a sustaining goal for any young player facing the ups and downs that come with soccer. With an eye on the prize she can be motivated to develop. Going to the games also gives her a leg up on the entire high school experience of a shared community. 
 
           Along with the high school games, most local colleges and universities will have a women’s soccer team. The schedules are easy to download on the internet and the ticket prices are usually under $10. Many states have their girls’ high school season in the spring, so college games in the fall are a great counterpart. If the high school season is in the spring, then high school age players will be with their club teams in the fall. Therefore, college games offer an opportunity for the entire team to attend and then critique the game afterwards. These games can be a significant teaching moment. Likewise, a crisp fall day can be a great backdrop for a family outing. All too often those family sports outings are to watch boys and men play football, soccer, basketball, and baseball. So why not attend an event devoted to women and give your daughters a chance to fully identify with the players on the field? 
 
           Professional women’s soccer has not yet proven to be successful. The Women’s Professional Soccer League (WPS) folded this year and will not return with a season in 2013. The USL W-league, a professional/amateur program, continues to operate and has plans for 2013 season (wleague.uslsoccer.com). The W-league has 30 teams from the US and Canada in three conferences and has a May – July schedule. Another pro-am league, the largest in the world, the WPSL-Elite (wpsl.info), has 50 teams and also offers a May through July schedule. Several excellent college and professional players make up these teams. Additionally with the bronze for the Canadian Women and the gold for the U.S. Women, talks have begun about forming a new professional league. Leading this is the Chicago Red Stars of the WPSL-Elite who are joining up with former WPS teams from Boston and New Jersey with the hope of creating a six to eight team league that can weather the economic woes of a start-up. With a big schedule in the summer for the USL-W League and the WPSL-Elite, the WNT Victory Tour which will have several more games than the two already announced, and the possibility of new women’s professional league, there should be plenty of opportunities for young female players to watch their Olympic heroines and up and coming WNT players live. Keep an eye on the US Soccer Federation’s website to see when new Victory Tour games are announced (ussoccer.com) and occasionally Google "Women’s Professional Soccer" to see what developments there are on that front. If a team happens to be formed in your hometown, season tickets will be a bargain. Consider purchasing them as a gift not only for your daughter but for the entire family. Even if you don’t get season tickets, be sure to attend at least one professional game this year. At the professional level soccer offers more speed, better skills, and the possibility of watching an Olympic player strut her stuff.
 
           Naturally these same principles hold true for boys. I think all too often girls don’t have as many options for watching soccer live or families are reluctant to attend a women’s game over a men’s game. Think about the message it sends your daughters – their efforts and those of other females aren’t as valued as those of their male counterparts. Hopefully the strength and excitement of the games the women played at the Olympics removed any doubt that women’s soccer can be as dynamic, perhaps even more so, than men’s. With the euphoria of the Olympic Gold this is the time to carry our enthusiasm forward with our daughters to feed their soccer passion and celebrate their participation.

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Girls Rule

Susan Boyd

In the midst of the Olympics we all have the opportunity to watch incredible athletes compete, overcome adversity, deal with defeats and celebrate victories. Less than 35 years ago only 24.6 percent of the Olympic athletes were women. This Olympics, the number is nearly double at 46.4 percent. And with the addition of boxing for women, females can compete in all the events men can. For the first time ever, women outnumber men in the U.S. contingent. While the U.S. Men’s Soccer team failed to qualify for the Olympics, the U.S. Women’s team has rolled into the finals with dramatic victories.
 
Yet in the U.S. we lose female players from sports at an alarming rate. By age 14, girls abandon sports at twice the rate of boys. Overall, girls end up quitting sports at six times the rate of boys. The Center for Disease Control collected statistics comparing the participation of girls and boys in sports finding that only 25 percent of girls participate in a sport or regular exercise by their senior year in high school compared to 50 percent of boys. Despite the institution of Title IX in 1972 which requires equality in the implementation of athletic programs and scholarships for women in college, many schools struggle every year to find qualified female athletes to fill their athletic programs. While top female athletes will always aspire to be Olympic and national team competitors, sports programs aren’t just for the elite. Staying with sports provides both female and male athletes with significant social and moral support which can help create strong, confident adults. Studies have shown reduced teen pregnancies among female athletes, more positive body image, better grades and, of course, a healthier lifestyle.

What can explain this desertion? Foremost is that age-old problem of gender-typing. Boys are often expected to participate in sports and encouraged to aim for high school and college participation. Girls experience pressure to play a different role as they mature. Sports can be considered unfeminine and girls who continue to play, especially at an intense level, can be ostracized by the popular groups. Male athletes on the other hand are often idolized in their schools. Even the styles of teen girls can interfere with playing sports. Wearing heels hurt posture, alter foot and ankle movement and can lead to ankle and knee injuries. Yet what girl can resist the siren call of fashion? Families can end up supporting sons who want to play sports and unconscientiously giving their daughters support to be "beautiful" and stylish. Buying team jerseys for boys and jewelry for daughters sends a clear message of which role the girls should be playing.

Girls tend to be less conditioned to deal with the tough and often rude coaching that comes with advancing in sports. Boys are taught to put up with abusive coaching, while girls get the message that they can be more emotional. One of the top reasons girls cited in a 1988 study for quitting sports was bad coaching. I’ve talked about how I think youth coaches are often too gruff and sometimes even insulting, however we aren’t going to be able to get rid of that type of coach. We need to help our children, both sons and daughters, develop coping skills. Providing our daughters with the support to work through bad situations rather than sympathizing and coddling could make the difference in sticking with sports or cashing in.

Finally, girls continue to need role models. Sports heroes for boys are epidemic. Ads tout male sport icons on a continual basis so that their names become part of the daily lexicon: Bryant, Brady, Rogers, Manning, Fielder. While some women athletes have reached a level of recognition equal to the men, they tend to burst onto the scene during major sporting events and then fade, while male athletes are year round and off-season. When Gabby Douglas won the gold medal for all-round female gymnast, Bob Costas made a point about her being the first African-American to achieve that status. His final comment was that perhaps her accomplishment would make other young African-American females believe that they could enter the sport and succeed. My immediate thought: I hope that Gabby will be an inspiration to all girls to push themselves to realize their goals, whether in sports or in life. Our daughters need those role models to see that participating in sports can augment their lives and allow them to be both healthy and beautiful.

Recently Gatorade began a program called "Keep Her in the Game" for Title IX. If you have been watching the Olympics, you’ve probably seen the video. Unfortunately the video seems to be all that the program encompasses. I do applaud Gatorade for making commercials which feature female athletes exclusively. The one with Abby Wambach is particularly strong showing Abby as overcoming fatigue and danger as she scouts her opponent like a lioness hunting prey. However, it is exactly this killer attitude which also turns off young women who see it as an unfeminine trait. Girls aren’t as much about winning at all costs as they are about socializing and compromising to keep the peace. Much of that attitude comes from the gender roles that are endemic to our society. While boys are encouraged to be competitive, tough out injuries, be aggressive and to win, girls are encouraged to cooperate, be polite, sacrifice and to have a good appearance. Unless they can visualize that being athletic isn’t incompatible with being feminine they will continue to leave sports.

In an interview before the Olympics, Abby Wambach was asked about the generation of players coming up in women’s soccer who are challenging Abby for her dominating position on the women’s team. "In the timeline of a career, you can only hope that when you’re done playing you made a positive impact. For the most part it’s a ‘pay it forward’ kind of feeling. I want to be sure that the opportunities that are there after I’m gone are much more than when I first arrived." It remains frustrating in women’s sports that the opportunities in fact are improving, but girls are still leaving sports in droves. While Abby, Gabby, Lolo, Missy and other incredible female athletes continue to expand the boundaries of women’s sports, we need to improve the participation. Title IX opened doors, but all it could offer was the destination for young female athletes. What we need now are programs that define and encourage the journey. We can’t do a wholesale change of gender roles as created by marketing and generations of traditions, but we can individually help our daughters see the advantages and joys of participating in sports. We can call them beautiful when they put on their uniforms, we can support their interests with the same intensity that we do with our sons, we can encourage them to work through their doubts, insecurities and discomfort to tough out just one more season, and we can make sports cool by our support on the sidelines. Our attitude can go a long ways to help our daughters stick with it and enjoy the experience. Few of them will reach the heights of the elite female athletes, but few of our sons will do likewise. Yet we want to see them continue in the sport of their choice because it provides not only a source of pride for the player and the family but a chance to develop life-long healthy habits and important life lessons. Girls should have the same experience because, after all, they rule!

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