Monday, March 31, 2008
Elite players in soccer have an opportunity that participants in other sports do not have to the same extent, travel. Given the truly global nature of soccer with 202 countries as members of FIFA an American soccer team could literally go anywhere in the world and have a match. Players and staff must be flexible and adaptable to both on the field situations and away from the pitch. Some young elite players have their international careers derailed by their inability to manage the off the field aspects of foreign travel. Here are a few of the adjustments the 1994 and 1993 boys' teams in the US Youth Soccer Olympic Development Program had to make while competing in Italy last week.
Using locker rooms and showers at the match venue was a new experience for many of the kids. Very few, if any, youth soccer complexes in the USA have locker rooms or showers. Our youth soccer players are in the habit of changing into their game uniform at home or the hotel, then ride back dirty after the match. Using the locker room and changing, as well as showering, in front of teammates were new experiences for all of these players. While it took some prodding and they were reluctant they did adapt to this new aspect of European soccer customs. Good preparation perhaps for high school, college and professional soccer where locker rooms are the norm.
They also learned that at game time, the subs put on training bibs and go to the bench first. The starting eleven line up, first the captain then the goalkeeper, defenders, midfielders and forwards, with the other team and march to center field to line up on either side of the officials to then wave to the crowd and be acknowledged. From here they go directly to their positions on the field to kick-off the match. They do not return to the bench, so this means that warm-ups or water bottles or other personal items must be taken to the bench by the reserve players and staff. This also means that the coaches must have their act together and get across to the players everything they need to in the locker room before exiting for the pitch.
The players also had to adjust to a Mediterranean diet and being 14-years-old this was a major adjustment for some. A few of the kids were unable to adapt and their intake of a balanced diet suffered. This of course caught up with them on the field for the energy to play at a high pace for a full match. Begging for french fries was an indicator to the staff that the players need more guidance on an athlete's diet back home. They did adapt to the time zone and a change in their sleep routine. This was merely adjusting to a five hour change in time zones which they did after the first two days.
A great aspect of foreign travel for our soccer players is the chance to experience a different culture; to broaden their horizons both in soccer and life experiences. Of course a piece of that experience is languages other than English. Players and staff should learn some of the language for the country they will visit before going. One interesting aspect of the language experience is not speaking the same language as the referee. Of course tone of voice and body language still come across if you are cutting loose on the referee. It may seem a small thing but not the being able to understand the language of the referee means the players really do need to understand the universal signals used by referees for the calls made during a match. This is another consideration for the coaches of elite players to teach to their teams.
Well, these are just a few examples of the versatility needed by select players and their staff. However, there are more to consider such as, altitude, weather and field conditions. The point for coaches here is to know that you must teach the players proper off the field habits that will impact their match performance. The more versatile the players and staff the more positive will be the experience of international soccer travel.