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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.

 

Youth Tryouts

Steve Prince

Hello Sam,

We are approaching the time of year again, I was wondering as to your thoughts on running tryouts? In the past we have run 2 hour sessions over 2 days with the majority of the tryout being drill based. As I am sure you can guess some players look totally competent in the drill, but seem to struggle in game formats. I am a believer that if the player can show their ability during a drill it is at least a base to build on. However, a lot of the coaches in my club want success by winning so they only want the best players, we have a relatively small club and sometimes there are not enough players to make a second tier team so it’s only the best players or the ones the coaches see as the fastest or most athletic that make it. I feel we lose a few technically gifted players each year because of this. I am the club trainer and only advise the coaches who have the last say on who makes it and who doesn't. I was hoping you may be able to suggest a more appropriate format with the right balance of small sided games and drills. Is it better to focus on more game related activities or should we be running the regular unopposed drills to see how the players look without pressure? And how much should we balance the two?


Hello Coach,

I want to be clear from the outset that all soccer clubs must look for players with a good soccer brain first and foremost. Athletic ability is indeed important, but it comes in fourth after that good soccer decision making brain, quality ball skills, a good soccer personality and then athleticism.

In general I believe that try-outs should not begin until the U13 age group. That’s the broad statement, meant for player retention in soccer and the overall health of our sport. Now once we get into holding tryouts much depends on the level of play. So a player trying out in the US Youth Soccer Olympic Development Program will be expected to have good ball skills so we jump straight to match related activities after a warm-up. So no drills are done with this caliber of player.

At a less talented level of play some drills may be in order to assess technique in an isolated situation. However this is more of a need for coaches who have difficulty assessing talent in game-like situations. So the use of drills tends to be used by inexperienced and/or less knowledgeable coaches.

The more talented coach will use games-based activities to evaluate players since the quality of the players’ performance in all four components of the game will show up in those situations. So from small-sided activities like 2v2 to uneven number games, 5v3 for example, to a full match an experienced coach can fully assess players’ capabilities.

In regard to the evaluation of athletic ability the more scientific the measurements the better the data will be. This is a realm where the facts speak for themselves and no subjective evaluation is necessary. Use standard fitness tests but ones that are age appropriate. For example the Beep Test should be done with players 16 or older only.

Whenever I evaluate players I have a short checklist in mind, but it is one that is prioritized.

1.            Technical speed and consistency

2.            Decision making (tactical awareness)

3.            Attitude/personality

4.            Athletic ability

Then within each of those components I will look at further details but much of that will depend on the age group and level of play. Certainly I will assess an 18-year-old player harder than a 13-year-old on tactical decisions made in the course of a match.

Match Play

Things to consider

  • range of technique
  • quality of opposition
  • understanding of role
  • quality of decisions
  • assertiveness / imposing themselves on the game
  • leadership / role model
  • ongoing assessment (over multiple matches)
     

In the end the most important factor in player evaluation is the trained eye of the evaluator.

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Lost and Found

Susan Boyd

An apt visual metaphor encapsulating the dashed dreams of the UEFA Euro 2016 teams was cut away at the end of one match to a lone soccer ball floating along the Seine and bumping into the barges traveling downstream. The announcer opined, “Somewhere there’s a little soccer player sadly watching his ball disappear towards the sea.” When England lost to Iceland, it was much more than a soccer ball slipping down the river – it was a nation’s pride. A country of 53 million couldn’t assemble a soccer team to beat a country of 350,000. That would be like a club team from Madison, Wis. beating the English. Unbelievable and embarrassing. Big losses are far more humbling than we expect because we cling so strongly to the promise of a win. I am always leery of the parent, who upon seeing her child’s bracket, announces confidently, “This will be a piece of cake.” Be careful. You may only come away with crumbs.

No one wants to think about losing. The point of competition is to be victorious. Kids learn this lesson very early. They see people’s reactions to wins and losses and quickly understand that winning is far superior to losing. Life is about achieving. Grades, reading and math placements, social hierarchies, NBA Finals, streaking through the yellow light, winning an argument, or becoming a starter on a team are just a few of the ways kids witness and experience the expectation of triumph. However winning exists in a binary arrangement – losing is the corollary. As parents we tend to avoid focusing on what we consider to be a negative. Yet we have to accept that our kids will lose at some point, and they need our help in coping with losses as much as celebrating success.

Pat Summitt passed away a few days ago. She was the powerhouse coach of women’s basketball at University of Tennessee. Her numbers are amazing. She coached her teams to eight national championships and 1,098 career wins, the most of any NCAA D1 coach male or female. She became the coach on a fluke when she was hired as a coaching teaching assistant and then promoted immediately when the head coach unexpectedly quit. It was 1974, she was 22 years old, and Title IX, assuring equality between women’s and men’s college athletics, was just two years old. She never had a losing season finishing 1974 at 16-8 and moving on to 18 NCAA Final Four appearances, securing the 1987 National Championship and following with seven more championships over her 38-year career. When she retired, Summitt had only 208 losses. She is obviously remembered and honored for the wins, but it was the losses, many of them coming in runs, that really defined her coaching style and ultimate success. As she wrote to one player, “Winning isn’t the point. Wanting to win is the point. Always doing your best is the point.” Every loss was a teachable moment that could lead to better play and perhaps better outcomes.

Despite all her wins, Summit couldn’t escape one final devastating loss. How she handled it shows that we are often more defined by our losses than by our wins. In 2011 she was diagnosed with early dementia Alzheimer’s type. In 2012 she retired from coaching and made it her purpose to shine a light on the issues of Alzheimer’s. She raised millions of dollars for research through a foundation she began, wrote a memoir detailing her battle with dementia, and spoke as often and for as long as her disease allowed. Tuesday, June 28th she lost that battle, passing away in the early morning. She told a friend that she thought she would be remembered for her wins, but realized she would rather be remembered for how she fought her disease, a battle she knew she would ultimately lose.

When we teach our children how to manage losing, we aren’t handing them a pessimistic or fatalistic world view. Although steeped in winning, Summit relied on her losing experiences to give her the strength and the determination to meet the loss of her memory and of her life head-on. The way players and teams handle losses often shapes their character in much more significant ways than winning does. Losing means that we have had a failure in our plans, and how we pick ourselves up from failure can have a powerful impact on how we move towards successes. England will win again. They will assess how the loss occurred, find new leadership, adjust the team make-up, and train to overcome the shortcomings that led to the loss. The 2018 World Cup is close at hand, other European soccer tournaments will test their readiness, and the team has the Olympics just weeks away. Iceland never even earned a spot in the UEFA Euro prior to this year, so their win to catapult them into a quarterfinal with France was so far off the radar as to be impossible, yet they did it. The win was stupendous and will be remembered in the annals of soccer history like the US win over England at the 1930 World Cup. But the Iceland win won’t suffice to create a legacy team going forward any more than the US’s 1930 victory turned us instantly into a soccer power to be reckoned with. Lionel Messi’s missed shootout shot in the finals of the Copa America cost Argentina the win. It’s a loss Messi will remember far more sharply and often than his many victories. Yet it won’t diminish his many accomplishments and the fact that he remains the best soccer player in the world. Losses should not strike us down; they should motivate and build us.

It’s not easy for kids to take that point of view. It’s especially difficult when they see the disappointment and even disapproval in their parents. Kids want to be loved, but they also want to be respected. They may not doubt our love, but after seeing how we react following a loss, they may not feel respected. It’s difficult to invest so much in winning and have that investment end in defeat. It’s even harder when the defeat comes after building to a win like in a tournament or a league season. The more kids win, the more they expect it to continue. As parents we must never forget that one word of displeasure can wipe out a boatload of praise.  It’s okay for our kids to be fully committed to winning, but as parents we need to take ego out of the equation and not be so fervently cheering for a win that we end up expressing annoyance to the point that the team would lose or that our child or another teammate was complicit in the loss. Our role is to provide perspective not irritation. Our children will express anger, but we need to steer their emotions towards, if not the positives of the match, at least the significant takeaways.  

As kids grow and move through life there will be plenty of losses to encounter. If they end up falling apart every time they get disappointed, defeated, or fail, then the loss becomes powerfully damaging.  They can be angry or sad, which is a normal emotional reaction, but they also need to shake it off, typically by finding a way to make a loss useful. We can offer support by acknowledging the difficulty and the sadness, but refrain from expressing our own negativity towards anything or anyone.  We should take the opportunity to guide our children through loss and to come out of it stronger and smarter.

The English National Team will have many more games to play, so they can’t wallow in one loss. Lionel Messi will be called upon to shoot many more penalty kicks, so he can’t let this miss negatively affect the rest of those shots. The young player who accidently kicked his ball into the Seine will kick many more balls, several of them into unrecoverable places. The parents of the child who lost the ball in the river will deal with that frustration, buy another ball, and wait for the next time they are told, “I lost my ball.” Every loss will elicit a response. How that response is shaped and expressed can have a huge impact on how future losses are handled. So our responsibility is to help our children cope with and respond to loss.

The ball drifting aimlessly yet purposely towards an open sea makes a good metaphor, highlighting the way many of us feel after a loss. The result was not inevitable, but the aftermath seems to be a sense of humiliation, sadness, frustration, and anger follows. A loss has a finality which can appear to be all-encompassing. Yet we parents understand that events are not the “end of the world” though they may be perceived as such. We can use our own experiences to show our children how people can bounce back better than before. Something is lost, but something can be found during adversity. We can provide the example of dealing calmly and appropriately with loss as long as we don’t take our children’s losses personally. We don’t become lesser parents because our kids have a loss or a failure. Instead we prove to be better parents when we give our children the tools to handle and learn from loss.

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What a Messi

Susan Boyd

Tuesday night the United States got schooled in the beautiful game - how the world (and specifically Argentina) plays it and how much we have to learn.  It was all led by a striker named Lionel Messi who will celebrate his 29th birthday two days before playing in the final of the Copa America Centenario.   Messi set the tone in the third minute with a perfect pass to Esquiel Lavezzi.  With all the US defenders pulled forward, Lavezzi received the ball and charged forward.  In one move he was suddenly one on one with goalkeeper Brad Guzan who seemed stunned to see the player ready to unload and reacted far too late to stop the shot.  In the 32nd minute Argentina was awarded a free kick outside the box.  Calmly retying his shoe before shooting, Messi sent the ball into the upper right corner striking a miniscule window between the crossbar, Guzan’s hand, and the upright.  It was a shot worthy of the century and also secured Argentina’s career scoring record for Messi.  In the second half, Guzman couldn’t hold onto a stopped shop, and with second effort Argentina scored.  Then Messi assisted in the waning minutes on a fourth humiliating goal.  As Jurgen Klinsmann, the US coach said, “Our players could just feel in every position on the field they were better than we are.”  He was stating the obvious for anyone watching the match.

Given the US population pool as compared to most of the other confederation nations, we should be far more dominating.  However the US obviously still has a long way to go in developing its male players.  For example, the US Men’s National Team (MNT) failed to qualify for the Olympics this year.  Since Olympic soccer players must be 23 or younger, this disappointment calls into question our youth development.  Our young squad just wasn’t ready for the level of competition they faced.  There is evidence of improvement.  The MNT has had some significant wins since 1991 and has made the knockout rounds in several international tournaments such as World Cup and FIFA Confederation Cup, feats not achieved since 1930.  Our biggest glory came in the 2009 Confederations Cup when the US beat Spain 2-0 in the semi-finals.  At the time, Spain was ranked 1st in the FIFA World rankings with 35 undefeated games including a run of 15 consecutive wins which ended with the US victory.  This was the first and only finals in a full-international competition that the US has achieved since the 1930 World Cup.  There we defeated England in the group round and ultimately went on to win third, our highest finish for a World Cup.  Our major achievements recently have come in our CONCACAF Gold Cup competitions which include five wins and four runners-up.  However in the 2015 Gold Cup the US was defeated by Jamaica in the semi-finals and then lost to Panama in penalty kicks in the 3rd place match.

Now comes the Copa America Centenario, a competition that encompasses CONCACAF and CONBEMOL, FIFA’s South American confederation.  The US did well against its CONCACAF competitors of Costa Rica and Ecuador, winning decisively, but did less well with CONBEMOL members, losing to Colombia, and barely hanging on against Paraguay.  Then they met the Messi-driven train that is the Argentine National Team, and all our weaknesses were on display.  We couldn’t pass, we couldn’t win 50/50 balls, we couldn’t possess, and considering the score, we certainly couldn’t defend.  Watching Messi move quickly to an advantageous position when off the ball and making pin point passes or shots when he had the ball presented a stark contrast to America’s best players who looked befuddled and disorganized.  A herd of deer on Interstate 95 at night wouldn’t have looked more dazed in the headlights than our team when faced with the brilliance of Messi and his teammates.

The good news, if there is any, comes with the youth who are beginning to fill the ranks of the MNT roster.  Despite our inability to qualify with our younger players for the Olympics, we do have several promising members under 25 who are on the full MNT roster including Christian Pulisic who is just 17.  Additionally players on the U-23 and U-19 squads are developing into strong forces, all of them playing internationally on professional teams around the world in addition to their MNT commitments.   We have a distance to go before we can consistently claim to be among the world’s best soccer nations, but as we chip away at our confederation competitors we are also gaining confidence and experience that will translate down the line to a stronger team.   We will face Colombia again in the Copa America third place match which will have been played the Saturday before this blog posts.  Perhaps we can redeem our CONBEMOL performances with a brilliant match.  In the meantime we will continue to build the MNT on the shoulders of our young players.

This is both the promise and the power of youth soccer.  Every player now at the top levels of soccer began as a youth player in a local club.  Many have amazing stories of how they grew from youth club players to national team players.  Like most youth players, Messi began to play soccer when 4 years old with his brothers and cousins and had his father as his first coach.  At age 6 he joined the youth club of his hometown’s professional squad, Rosario’s Newell’s Old Boys.  When he turned 11 he was diagnosed with growth hormone deficiency that threatened to end his developing soccer talent.  The disease required an expensive and long-term medical treatment.  Ironically it was his disease which, rather than thwarting his dreams, actually led him to a top club.  When his parents’ health insurance benefits ran out, the family, recognizing his talent, sought a soccer club which would sign their son for development while also continuing to pay for his treatments.  Club River Plata, a top club in Argentina, wanted to sign Messi, but didn’t have the funds for his treatments.  Messi’s father had relatives in Spain, near Barcelona, so he reached out to their club.  At first reluctant to sign such a young foreign player, they ultimately relented.  Messi proved to be an amazing investment.  He incredibly led the youth team to a triple win of their league, the Spanish Cup, and the Catalan Cup in his first full year playing.  He scored 36 goals in 30 games.  Despite an offer to play for Arsenal in the English Premier League, he chose to remain with Barcelona and became a powerhouse player for the club and for the Argentine National Team.

While few players have the natural soccer gifts that Messi possesses, every youth player has the potential to play at the highest levels should he or she have both the passion and the determination.  Most players who make either the MNT or the Women’s National Team (WNT) cite as the most important factor their willingness to work through every roadblock and to find ways to play no matter what.  Certainly many kids dream of a professional career as they idolize a favorite player.  As parents we need to nurture those dreams while making sure our children find joy in the journey.  Watching Messi play Tuesday night was a speedy reality check.  Few people in the world can master soccer the way he has, meaning that only a few will ultimately reach that level of ability.  Nevertheless, having someone like Messi or Ronaldo or Carli Lloyd as a role model can be a significant influence in a child’s life giving him or her something to strive for.  Ultimately most kids will play soccer for the fun of it and the benefits of conditioning and learning to be part of a team.  Whenever I go to watch a youth game it’s humbling to consider that the future stars of soccer are right now buzzing around a U-8 or U-10 field learning to control their dribbles and emulating as best they can the fancy step-over moves they see the adult players use.  The powerful, exhilarating play we have been witnessing this summer with Copa America and UEFA Euro 2016 grew from players born in some cases less than two decades ago.   

The United States Soccer Federation (USSF) oversees the various US National Teams.  It is charged with forming, growing, and maintaining the youth development programs in America.  Over the last decade the USSF has instituted some significant changes in order to hopefully improve the means to identify and train top players around the United States.  They established the boys’ Development Academy which is an association of top youth clubs and MLS affiliated youth clubs in order to create a more consistent training program with unified goals and outcomes.  Next year they plan to do the same for girls.  The Academy supplements the Olympic Development Program (ODP) which began in 1977 and was expanded and refined from 1979 to 1982 (when a girls’ program was added) into a format which exists up to the present.  Boys and girls join through their State Youth Soccer Associations and attend a state camp where players are identified and invited to a regional camp where they are further evaluated and possibly recommended for National camp.  Players who belong to a Development Academy team don’t go through ODP as they are identified within the Academy.  There are five years in which players can try out for the state teams.  It isn’t unusual for a player not to make a state team one year but then do so in subsequent years and vice versa.  Age groups can vary state to state, but in general kids will be eligible to participate when they are 12 until they are 17. 

We have far to go with the Men’s program, but we can also take pride in successes, albeit inconsistent.  We no longer have to wax poetic about a 1930 series of matches because we can take pride in our contemporary play.  We’re a huge nation which deserves to have a world top ten soccer team.  I have no doubt that as our youth players have more and more training opportunities and can emulate our own national soccer heroes, we’ll break through those rankings and join the world’s elite.

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Prevent Soccer ACL Injuries: Quick Tips for Coaches

Sam Snow

Prevent Soccer ACL Injuries: Quick Tips for Coaches

By Dr. Steve Grosserode DPT and Dr. Jared Vagy DPT 

The ACL and Injury

Anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) injury rates are high in youth soccer and have been increasing the past 20 years. These injuries have serious effects on the lives of players, teams and coaches. The ACL connects the thigh bone to the shin bone, helping to prevent twisting and bending of the leg. However, if too much twisting or bending happens at the leg, injury can occur even if there is no contact. In fact, non-contact injuries are responsible for over 70 percent of injuries. 

Trying to figure out what causes these injuries can be confusing. ACL injuries are often blamed on factors that coaches and players cannot control. These factors can be bone structure, hormones or even gender. What is usually neglected is a key reason for injury that we can control: misaligned movement.

 

Misaligned Movement Can Lead to Injury

What is misaligned movement? The human body is like a machine similar to a car. When a car's alignment is off it begins to have wear and tear, perform poorly and then ultimately it will break down. Our bodies are no different. If the body's alignment is off during athletic movement, the body can experience wear and tear, perform poorly and eventually get hurt. Just like we are trained to operate a car skillfully, soccer players need to be trained to move properly. This starts with correcting misaligned movement patterns. 

It is important for coaches to know that just like each player has different skills and abilities, each player has a different way of moving. Certain players may even demonstrate misaligned movement. 

There are many types of misaligned movements. Coaches should watch out for a common misaligned movement that leads to ACL injury: the knee collapsing inward (image 1). Research shows that players who suffered an ACL tear demonstrate a greater amount of knee collapse. The knee can collapse inwards during fundamental movements in soccer. These movements include planting, decelerating and changing directions at high speeds. 

Fortunately, there are exercises that can help to correct misaligned movement. Just as a doctor may prescribe specific medications to treat different illnesses, coaches can let the player know what's going on and give specific exercises for homework to help correct the specific misaligned movement pattern. We will focus on the exercises that help players who demonstrate the misaligned movement called knee collapse (image 1). 

                                                  

5 6

 

(Left) shows the knee collapsing inwards.                 (Right) shows proper knee alignment.

 

 Prevent Knee Collapse with Glute Exercises and Cueing

Glute strengthening and coach's guided instructions (cueing) to move correctly is often overlooked in injury prevention and player development. The glute muscles are the main muscles that control the knee from collapsing inwards. Weakness of these muscles can lead to misaligned movement and injury. It is essential to use the glute muscles to keep the knee in proper alignment especially during planting, decelerating and changing directions (image 2). 

Coaches can help by telling players when they demonstrate this misaligned movement of knee collapse and cue them to keep their knee out while using their glute muscles. Coaches can also assign corrective exercise homework. An excellent way to activate the glute muscles is with a resistance band wrapped above the knees. The glute muscles are used to press the knees against the band to align the knees. 

Perform the three exercises listed below as part of a pre-practice warm-up program to activate hip muscles to stop knee collapse, prevent injury and improve athletic performance. Use a low-resistance band and perform each exercise for 1 minute. The low resistance and long duration will allow hip muscles time to activate but not fatigue.

 Squats – 1 minute

Purpose: Activate specific hip muscles while decreasing stress on the knee.squat

 

A: Put your feet through the exercise band and wrap just above knees. Stand with feet shoulder width apart.

B: Equally bend from your waist/hip and knees. Stop when thighs are parallel to the ground. Make sure to keep knees behind and aligned with the second toe. Squeeze glut muscles upon return.

 

Side Steps – 1 minute 

Purpose: Activate side hip muscles that prevent the knee from collapsing inward.side

 

A: Put your feet through the exercise band and wrap just above knees. Stand with feet shoulder width apart. Equally bend from your waist/hip and knees into a quarter squat position. Make sure to keep knees behind and aligned with the second toe.

B: Use hip muscles to step out to the side with one leg. Slowly step the other leg in while keeping tension in the band.  

 

Monster Walks – 1 minute

Purpose: Activate specific injury prevention hip muscles while keeping proper knee alignment.Monster

 

A: Put your feet through the exercise band and wrap just above knees. Stand with feet shoulder width apart. Equally bend from your waist/hip and knees into a quarter squat position. Make sure to keep knees behind and aligned with the second toe.

B: Bring foot forward and to the side by squeezing the muscle on side of hip. Make sure you maintain tension on the band.

C: Step other foot further forward and to the side while keeping tension on the band.

D, E: Repeat 

Conclusion

Misaligned movement occurs in soccer when players perform athletic movements while the body is not aligned. While there are many different misaligned movement patterns, knee collapse is perhaps the most common and unsafe. If one of your players demonstrates knee collapse, then it is important for the coach to recognize this and tell the player how to correct. In addition, resistance band exercises such as the squat, side step and monster walk can help by activating the gluteal muscles to stop the misaligned movement of knee collapse. This improved movement can prevent injuries and maximize athletic performance. For more information on the various misaligned movements and how to correct visit: yourmovementsolutions.com 

About the Authors

Dr. Grosserode and Dr. Vagy are Doctors of Physical Therapy and co-founders of Movement Solutions. They are co-authoring the upcoming book Prevent Soccer Injury: Lifelong Player Development. Visit yourmovementsolutions.com for more youth sports injury prevention information.

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