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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.

 

Team Rankings

Sam Snow

Just like the Laws of the Game, our approach to governing the youth soccer environment has shades of grey. There is a wide range of players to whom we have an equal responsibility. That responsibility is to provide to them through the best of our abilities a youth soccer culture which allows them to strive toward their own full potential. Finding the right balance of black or white or grey is a daily challenge for everyone involved in soccer beyond a casual experience. Here's an exchange I had some time ago as an example.

Dear Coach Snow,

I just received the December Kwik Kicks email. I do not understand why US Youth soccer is promoting the top 30 youth clubs honored by Soccer America.

I have been coaching youth soccer for over 20 years; have attended most of the US Youth Soccer, US Soccer and NSCAA licenses and certificates. I recently completed my National Youth License. The one thing that to me as a coach and administrator of a youth club is getting parents and coaches with US Youth Soccer's philosophy of everyone should play, winning is not as important as inclusion. Many of us have been dismissed by clubs for trying to convey that message to parents and board members.

When I see Soccer America's top clubs are based on winning national championships, and US Youth Soccer to print it tells me maybe even US Youth Soccer needs open up their eyes. I have witnessed these types of teams, and even today I see those teams playing to win, coaching fear and intimidation to get the most out of their players. I do not believe that is a healthy way to run club, and US Youth Soccer should give absolutely no credence to an award by a soccer magazine. I have been trying for 20 years to get people to change, I've had some success but this will not help me.

In response:

US Youth Soccer has always stood by our motto of The Game For All Kids.

Mission Statement
US Youth Soccer is non-profit and educational organization whose mission is to foster the physical, mental and emotional growth and development of America's youth through the sport of soccer at all levels of age and competition.

So the players, teams and clubs which end up being recognized by Soccer America are part of the team so to speak. In that regard, we are inclusive of all member clubs. That inclusiveness in no way diminishes our commitment to improving the youth soccer experience. The work that you do contributes to that goal. By involving all clubs in our collective efforts we can better shift the soccer landscape to one where players are respected even while they strive to play for a national championship or to simply play a pickup game.

We agree with you that coaches should not compel their players' performance being using fear or intimidation. This is where the continuing education of parents, administrators and coaches is of paramount importance. I am glad that you are a part of that effort given your commitment to coaching education.

Finding the right balance with winning and development is also a challenge at times. Some folks have interpreted the US Youth Soccer position of inclusion to mean that winning is not important. STRIVING to win is always important. Teaching players to try their best is not only a soccer lesson, but a life lesson too. Our teams should always try to play their best and try to win the match. However this effort to win must not be at the detriment of the players. This means coaches, even with teams in the highest level of play, need to develop the entire team. This gives the team bench strength. A wise coach knows that at some point in a season you'll need the reserve players to come up strong. That means they need meaningful playing time during the year. To develop the team to win the coach needs to develop all of the players in training sessions. By all means play to win, but how you win, how you play is of crucial importance.
 

Inverted Pyramid

Susan Boyd

Recently I was reading the top ten youth soccer stories for 2010 from Goal.com and one article by youth editor J. R. Eskilson reminded me of the controversy stirred up during the World Cup by ESPN commentator and retired German player Jurgen Klinsmann.  I think the issues he brought up are worthy of another look.  Klinsmann took great issue with the development of youth players in the U.S.  It began with his comment that the top U.S. players "did not live up to their expectations…" and ended with a condemnation of the U.S. system.  Soccer message boards were inundated with discussion following this commentary, most of it in agreement with Klinsmann with personal stories of how the U.S. youth soccer system had failed writers or their children.
 
Why should any of us parents listen to Klinsmann?  He has had a long and productive career both on the pitch and in the head office.  After the World Cup he was in serious negotiations to become the next U.S. Men's National Team (MNT) coach but the organization stayed with Bob Bradley.  Klinsmann played on the German National Team which won the World Cup in 1990 and the UEFA Cup in 1996.  He coached the German Team to a third place finish in the 2006 World Cup and managed Bayern Munich and the Swiss National Team.  He has been a consultant for the MLS including working directly with the L.A. Galaxy and most recently with Toronto FC.  He is married to an American and has two children that he has raised in Southern California.  So he knows both international soccer and U.S. soccer, including youth soccer, intimately.
 
He argues that American soccer players lack even the most basic of soccer skills because they are not trained in a serious, competent manner.  Further he contends that the American development system "… is the only country in the world who has the pyramid upside down. That means you pay for having your kid play soccer …"   Therefore, he says, the best players aren't playing in the clubs, only the players who can afford it.   Although U.S. Soccer Federation has tried to address this with the Development Academy, where more players are being developed and are supposed to play for free, the reality is that this varies from club to club, that clubs still don't recruit from diverse groups and neighborhoods, and the Academy program covers just a small portion of the U.S.  He bluntly accuses the U.S. of ignoring huge pools of talented players.  "…You need to find ways, whatever they may be to connect … with everyone and get the kids that are really hungry." In particular he believes that America needs to approach soccer in the same way it approaches basketball.  "…Soccer is very similar to basketball; you need it out of the lower class environment. Soccer worldwide is a lower environment sport. We all got up from moderate families and fought our way through."  For years the development plan in America was to identify the best 40 or 50 players and then train them together in a national academy.  Most of the world's programs train tens of thousands of players, who claw and fight for the privilege of becoming a member of one of the professional clubs and, for the very best, the national teams.  Klinsmann argues that this hunger is missing in American soccer because parents pay to get their kids in a club.  Kids aren't vying to get a spot on the MNT.  Instead they are vying for college scholarships with no plans to go pro after school.   Speaking of those who direct the development of players he says, "I think it's really important that they lay out a philosophy for U.S. Soccer and say 'where do we want to go?'"
 
What does this all mean for parents of youth players?  I think they could ask the same question for their family.  "Where do we want to go?"  Our kids have so many options in youth sports that it's difficult to figure out how to balance variety with development.  Soccer has always been a sport that has demanded complete devotion from an early age.  That's easy in countries where soccer is not only the most respected team sport but the only team sport of any substance.  Here soccer competes for attention and respect against a dozen other significant team sports which offer even more lucrative college scholarships.  Add to that soccer's escalating expenses as players advance to more competitive teams, and you have a recipe for desertion.  We had two caveats with our boys when it came to soccer:  One:  Seek out unconventional opportunities and Two:  play for the best team where they would be starters.  The first caveat brought the boys to play in a predominantly Hispanic league where the coaches weren't paid but had a wealth of expertise from their amateur and pro experiences in Mexico, Central America, and South America.  The boys learned a completely different style of play, which has proved valuable both as experience and in being flexible.  The second caveat brought Bryce to a Serbian team that he probably would have never considered given our suburban club experience.  He learned about the European system, how to play when generations of old-time soccer players came to the games to shout and criticize, and how to handle far more physical games than were played in the usual leagues.  Oh, and did I mention that the year cost us $150 compared to $1500 + with his previous club team?  We parents need to assess our child's interest in the sport, look for opportunities to advance that interest and our child's skills, and fight for reasonable costs when dealing with traveling teams.  We have a system of youth coaching licensing in the United States which should be one of the standards parents look for in a club.  Having an English coach only tells you the coach played in England but doesn't say anything about his coaching credentials.  Look for at minimum a C level national license which shows that the coach and the club take seriously their education responsibilities.
 
In the bigger picture, the powers that be need to find a way to connect with all youth players and make soccer affordable for any child who wants to play.  U.S. Youth Soccer Association addresses this with their Soccer Across America program (/programs/SoccerAcrossAmerica/).  The goal of the program is to provide soccer to areas not yet served by existing soccer clubs and leagues and to families who can't afford the costs of soccer participation.  Inexpensive soccer programs are available through community organizations that serve at risk youth and several non-profits such as Soccer Without Borders (http://www.soccerwithoutborders.org/) which operates in the U.S. and five other countries around the world.  What we are missing is an umbrella organization that merges all the youth programs into a way to identify players to become part of a national development system.  Kids in many of the free programs don't get looked at by national coaches and don't play for high school programs with enough visibility to be noticed by college coaches.  These kids are often the hungriest and many come from a tradition of soccer being well-respected in their homes and communities.  This is the pool of players that Klinsmann argues isn't being identified, developed, and given opportunities to play for top clubs, national teams, colleges, and/or pros.  We have a rich pool of talent that has gone untapped.  Soccer is one of the fastest growing sports in America, but we still have a long way to go before we have completely righted the pyramid to its proper position and work from the broad base of youth players here.  Rather than have competing clubs who literally sell their superiority for getting players identified, we need to have a network of identification that doesn't depend on parents' ability to afford the opportunity and does address every potential youth player in America.
 

Life technology

Susan Boyd

The other night as I was fast-forwarding through the commercials while watching "The Good Wife" I got to thinking about how wonderful it would be if I could DVR my life as well as my favorite TV shows. Not only was I skipping the ads, I was also watching the Tuesday show on Wednesday giving me the luxury of watching when I wasn't rushed and could really savor the experience. Imagine doing that with life!

I know that philosophers and pundits tell us that going through the bad stuff helps us appreciate the good stuff. But Georg Hegel didn't have access to a DVR, so despite his genius, he had no way of envisioning a world in which there were hemorrhoid treatment commercials and a device designed to avoid watching them. I don't know if Hegel had children but if he did, he probably would have jumped at the chance to exercise his theory of "self-determination" by pushing "skip" on his DVR remote that would eliminate driving to practices or would bypass the Sharpie wall mural incident. Nietzsche wasn't completely right when he said, "That which does not kill me makes me stronger." I'm certain few of us feel empowered after dealing with the three hour laundry process following a mud bowl soccer match.

Having the power to DVR our lives would require some serious boundaries. When we record a TV program we can choose to not only skip past commercials but also skip any unpleasant scenes.  This means we risk losing an understanding of the plot or the show's themes. Being able to omit the outside distractions makes sense. Who needs to see the cops chasing a suspect down a dark alley only to segue to a woman trying to eliminate the smell of last night's fish from her kitchen? We'd rather continue the pursuit down the alley and see the outcome without interruption. So fast-forwarding makes sense in those circumstances. In life I'd want to fast-forward through the stuff that doesn't matter, like my commute to work, or waiting for the bread dough to rise. Anything more than that gets complicated. For example would I speed through soccer practices? They would be a distraction for me, but not for my kids. Or would I choose to avoid unpleasantness such as a game against an overwhelming opponent, sparing us all the embarrassment of a rout but denying my children the opportunity to try for a win? 

Having a child in youth sports, and specifically soccer, creates lots of those DVR possibilities. Tomorrow Bryce is playing three games in Chicago. The temperature might get up to 11 degrees with a -20 degrees wind chill. If I could, I'd like to eliminate the ride down and then save the games for a warmer day. So far that technology is just a pipe dream, so I'll be driving down and I'll be bundling up. When we sign on for children, we sign on symbolically for all the hemorrhoid commercials as well as the powerful dramas and side-splitting comedies. We don't have any choice but to take the bad with the good. That's life. But we also have to sell ourselves to the fact that we can't be fair-weather participants, doing our own editing by not taking our kids to practice when it's snowing or avoiding ruined floors by refusing to bring out the finger paint. We have to dive into it all.

I heard one parent tell another that she was only going to put her son in spring soccer because it would be easier. I had to resist the urge to correct her because I figured it would be better for her to learn on her own. I'm guessing the spring soccer schedule seemed less demanding than the fall or conflicted less with some other activity, but it still won't be easier. She'll have to learn about practices that move on a moment's notice because the fields are too muddy, or the games that are played in goo that makes finger painting look like the most pristine activity her kids will do that month or matches that keep getting rescheduled because of thunderstorms. We can plan, we can assume, and we can hope, but we can't avoid everything unpleasant. The messy stuff just shows up anyway. We have to see past it, savor the good parts, and accept that we have no remote control that can edit out the bad. While I don't believe that the bad necessarily makes us appreciate the good more, I do believe that the bad isn't the same for everyone, so we can't just erase it and assume we've done something universally good. That long rush hour trip to practice could also be an opportunity to talk with my son about how school is going or what's up with the new girlfriend. 

The advantage of a DVR for TV becomes pretty transparent – you zap the commercials and you store the show for a more convenient time. You don't have any messy philosophical issues because other than during the Super Bowl most of us agree that ads are pretty annoying and unnecessary to enjoying the program. However, the annoying stuff in life doesn't always translate into erasable moments.  And we don't really find that out until we experience them. A soccer tournament trip to Ohio when the freeway traffic was stopped for two hours turned into an impromptu soccer game on the shoulder. We may not have a DVR for our lives, but parents are pretty adept at making lemonade from lemons. We need to collect those lemons cheerfully and regularly because that's part of our job. In the meantime, I'll try to develop a DVR that can at least save and play back the best moments in our lives – wait I think we already have that.
 

Developmentally Appropriate

Sam Snow

One aspect of the National Youth License and the U6/U8 Youth Module and the U10/U12 Youth Module courses we emphasize, since it impacts all age groups, is the idea of training and game-day appropriateness for an age group.  So, here's the definition of developmentally appropriate.
 
How does the term developmentally appropriate relate to youth soccer?

Developmentally appropriate refers to the type of training and match environment children are put into and the coaching methods used. Young players, 19-years-old and younger, must be exposed to a proper environment in order to develop. Further, that environment must be suitable for the age and the level of play. The environment for a 12-year-old premier team player and a recreation-plus player will be different because the level of expectation of the player and coach will be different. Expectations will be based on the level of play. Additionally, the environment of training for a 12-year-old will be different than that of a six-year-old, since again the expectations will be different.

For example, youth academy rules for the Premiership clubs in England, boys between ages 9 and 12 must live within one hour traveling distance of the club; between 13 and 16, it's one and a half hours. Different age groups equals different expectations and what is then appropriate.

"They play small-sided games - we let them play.  The coach doesn't keep stopping them, I don't want to hear the coach's voice all the time. It's all about enjoyment at that age, we want them to come back," says Tony Carr, the director of the youth academy at West Ham United in London. He asks, "I have a question - Do we perhaps put too much emphasis on competition and winning too young? But I don't have an answer." (1)

Indeed the emotional impact coaches have upon children must also be developmentally appropriate. Too much pressure to win matches, tournaments and trophies too soon will cause undue distress, then burn out and then drop out. This is the number one reason players quit soccer by age 13!

The coach and parents must also consider their social and cognitive rates of development. From Jean Piaget (note below)  we have learned that this development goes through set stages. ALL players go through the stages. No stage is skipped and each player goes through those stages at different rates.

Technique is at the top of the list of the components of soccer to teach to children. Learning how to do things with the ball is great fun. Playing with the "toy" is the driving force behind participation for most youngsters. Work on ball skills must also be developmentally appropriate to the age group.

"Developmental acquisition of sophisticated movement abilities is a complex phenomenon that begins during the prenatal period and continues through adulthood. …Motor skills are refined from early, gross actions to highly coordinated and complex movements. This developmental trend of simple to complex and gross to fine is the basis of all motor development theory. Sequential acquisition of motor abilities can best be understood utilizing a "stage" model. …Motor development can be divided into two main periods: the preskill and skill refinement phases. …Behavioral characteristics from one level are utilized to build more advanced skills later in the continuum. It is important to note that a deficit in one stage of the developmental process will tend to influence acquisition of more complex skills." (2)

The stages are: preskill phase, reflexive stage, sensory integration stage, fundamental movement pattern development, skill development phase, skill refinement stage, skill performance stage and skill deterioration phase (time to start coaching).

To conclude, "Most young children are not ready for competition organized by adults. They need opportunities and activities in which they can develop and improve basic skills, but not external pressure to perform beyond their developmental abilities. When children do begin to play forms of adult games, modifications will be necessary. …the soccer field does not have to be regulation size and it is not necessary to play with the same size ball the pros use. Nothing is "holy" about the games big people play, but the games should not be modified to the degree that skill is not a requirement. Placing too many people on a team or making too few or too many rules can spoil the game for almost everyone. …Sports offerings should be based on children's needs and level of development. Activities that lead the participant to a higher level of action are the best from a developmental standpoint." (3)

1) Paul Gardner, Youth Soccer London-style, Soccer America, May 1, 2000, p. 7.
2) Russell Pate, et al., Scientific Foundations of Coaching, New York, CBS College Publishing, 1984, pp. 184-190.
3) Billie Jones, et al., Guide To Effective Coaching, second edition, Dubuque, Wm. C. Brown Publishers, 1989, p. 68
 
Piaget, Jean (1896-1980), Swiss psychologist, best known for his pioneering work on the development of intelligence in children. Born in Neuchâtel, Piaget studied and carried out research first in Zürich, Switzerland, and then at the Sorbonne in Paris, where he began his studies on the development of cognitive abilities. Piaget wrote extensively on child development.

In his work, Piaget identified four stages of a child's mental growth. The sensorimotor stage lasts up to age 2; a child's gaining motor control and learning about physical objects marks it. In the preoperational stage, from ages 2 to 7, a child is preoccupied with verbal skills. In the concrete operational stage, from ages 7 to 12, a child begins to deal with abstract concepts. Finally, in the formal operational stage, ages 12 to 15, a child begins to reason logically and systematically. 
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