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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.

 

Skills Training

Sam Snow

It is not uncommon for coaches to train young players in one component of the game at a time. This is often seen in a separate training on technique which is accomplished through specific drills. With older players, the training of the four individual components of soccer is seen mostly in fitness training. While there is a place for separate fitness training, particularly from 15 years old and older, most training sessions must be economical. Economical training is working on two or more components of the game at a time. For example; in a 4 v 4 training activity, all four components of the game are taking place but the coach might focus the training on just one component. If that component is technique then the benefit of this approach over other drills is having players connect the skill to the tactical moment in the game. If one attends the "D" or "C" license course, then the coaching of technique and tactics are done simultaneously. Yet decades of teaching skills as a standalone component are still being phased out. Many coaches and clubs are in the process of making the change. That leads us to this exchange with a club coach.

I am struggling to defend a principle that you taught us at the"Y" License course this summer. If I recall, you told us that for U10s - in which I include U9s, the pinnacle of coaching is to have players solve problems in 3s and 4s.

Our technical director has set a curriculum that focuses almost exclusively on technique for the U9 travel players and waits to introduce group concepts at U10. I understand his general approach, but feel that the particular group of boys in our U9 group are especially gifted and have already shown themselves to be ready to solve problems in groups rather than an exclusive focus on technique. During the summer I led them through sessions on defensive transition and pressure-cover activities (using age-appropriate activities and small sided games of course) as well as possession passing and support. The results of the summer training are showing in games. Our U9s are using back passes, to the keeper at times, to relieve pressure and redistribute. In our last game I counted fewer than 3 "clearances" since our boys tend to want to hold possession. I noticed good cover and spacing all over the field. The boys don't know they are doing it; they are just doing it and are enjoying being good at this game that they love.

I am fearful that once the season starts, and the Academy training is focused on technique there will be an exclusion of the principals of play and our boys will not continue to push the envelope. I am not saying that technique is not critical to a U9 player, it is important. What I think I am saying is that principals of play can and should be taught along with technique to U9 players if they are capable of getting the concepts.

I think I am correct, but cannot articulate the reasons why. I'd appreciate your perspective and thoughts on this so I can adjust my own opinions. I would like to better understand the pinnacle of coaching that you support and if your opinion can help me influence our Academy training curriculum I would be grateful.

Well, it sounds like you had a productive and fun summer with the players. I am sure you are all looking forward to the fall season. The situation you describe is actually a 'good problem' in that the need to improve the ball skills of the American player is quite real. However teaching ball skills in isolation from the game is a problem. Even young players need to make a connection to why they are practicing the skills. Yes it is fun to learn how to do things with the ball; it is a toy to them after all. But players 8 and older like knowing how skills can help them play the game.

So for the U10 age group, which clearly includes the U9 age group, the ball to player ratios that should occur in training sessions throughout the soccer year are 1:1, 1:2 and 1:3/4. The player combinations could be 1v1 up to 4v4 and then odd number combinations such as 2v3 or 4v2. These variations of player combinations, still having a maximum of four players on the ball, puts the kids into situations they can comprehend – in time. Now they are seeing the game from both an individual and teammate perspective. While working the players up to meaningful play in a small group the need to practice in pairs and individually continues. The skills and principles of play done on their own or with a partner are crucial building blocks to small group play.

For example, they are at an age when they can learn how to do a wall pass. Now working on inside of the foot passing makes better sense to them. Tactically they can see how a teammate can help them in the situation. Coaching technique and tactics (execution of the principles of play) do not have to be done separately.

I recommend that you sit with your Club Director and have the conversation. Yes, you can indeed teach a lot of ball skills in the U10 age group, but don't exclude their practical application in the game.

I suggest that you also involve the Technical Director from your state soccer association as he or she can give you a good deal of support on the plans for player development.

Finally, it must be said that too often coaches try to compartmentalize the process; i.e., learn the technique first, and then play the game, however as Nater and Gallimore (2006) comment on the teachings of the late John Wooden, "… stressing fundamentals is not enough. Coach teaches that the purpose of being fundamentally sound is to provide a foundation on which individual creativity and imagination can flourish. It is a false dichotomy, he insists, to claim that one must either focus on fundamentals or on higher-order learning and understanding. One rests on the other, and both should be properly taught concurrently from the onset".
 

Week 3--FRIENDS

Susan Boyd

When the boys were young our family was oblivious to the existence of youth soccer teams in our town. But we soon discovered that soccer played a key role in the social networking of both children and adults. I got a phone call asking me to put in an application for Bryce to play soccer. The parents were collecting these applications to submit together for a team of friends. And thus began our soccer journey.
 
I'm sure many of you have similar stories that include a group of childhood friends. Around our house are team pictures from those years with the sweet faces of young boys who are now young men. Because these teammates went to local schools, belonged to the same Cub Scout dens, swam at the same city parks, and attended local houses of worship, we managed to stay in contact over the years. While some teammates continued with soccer, others opted to switch to football in the summer before 5th grade. As the boys grew and developed, some showed more athletic skills than others and tried out for select soccer teams. Eventually over the years that core group of friends splintered choosing different activities. The boys kept some of the connections they had created in those early soccer years and lost others.
 
When I was administrator of the soccer club and it came time for tryouts, the real nervousness for the girls' parents wasn't if their daughters would make a team, but if they would make the team of their friends. Friendship, rather than athletic skills or team strength, became the overriding factor. Girls would be devastated if their friends moved on to a different team, and some girls would opt for a less competitive team just to stay together with a group of girls. I would get phone calls from parents hoping I could intercede and get their daughter on a particular team that all her friends had made. I would hear the real anguish in their voices because they saw this exclusion as extending to their daughter's entire social experience. These parents understood that friendships may bend or break when one friend has a different schedule than another friend.
 
But with every new experience come new people. As our lives expand and shift, we lose contact with some friends and come in contact with new friends. Playing soccer offers both kids and parents the opportunity to meet new people and form bonds. While the boys began playing soccer with friends they saw every day in all kinds of social settings, they grew to play soccer with kids who came from outside the community. Their connection became solely soccer. Nevertheless some friendships transcended that single bond. Bryce had a friend from his Under-14 soccer team, who due to illness had to quit the team. Bryce moved to several different teams over the next few years, and then went to San Francisco for college. But he and his friend kept in contact. When Bryce transferred to our local state university his friend was already there, and they reconnected. Robbie has many teammates playing in colleges all over the United States and remains in contact with all of them even though they haven't played soccer together for several years. While soccer drew them together, true friendship kept them involved.
 
And what happened with those players from that first packet of applications?  Bryce remains in contact with several of those boys, and one has been a good friend all these years despite having only played soccer with Bryce that first year and then at U-18. While soccer formed the friendship, the endurance of that friendship came from sharing other interests. Throughout my own soccer journey I have made the acquaintance of people that I consider friends even if we don't converse regularly. I have also had the privilege of watching dozens of boys grow up into young men who continue to play soccer both at the college level and professionally. Sharing in their careers makes soccer more personal and exciting.
 
Friendships can spring out of any organized activity or even the most mundane experience. But we all cherish those first friends our children have. My favorite picture is one of Robbie's third grade class sprawling across the new colorful playground equipment at the school. I know each child by name and many of them I still run into today. We can't always maintain the purity of those early friendships, but we can be sure to memorialize them. When you get the team pictures ask each player to sign his or her name under their face and write out full names on the back of the picture. Take pictures with small groups of players so you can have memories of specific friends. When Robbie graduated from high school a friend's mother put in the year book a picture of four twelve year old soccer players smiling with arms across one another's shoulders. Next to this photo was a picture of the same four boys celebrating their senior year state championship in soccer. Side by side these pictures showed four boys enjoying their sport together over the span of six years. What an amazing tribute to friendship!
 

Week 2 - FAMILY

Susan Boyd

A few years ago Robbie had a soccer game in April against a long-time rival team. So the entire family packed into the mini-van and headed to the field. April in Wisconsin can be spectacular or foreboding. This particular afternoon it was the latter. Dark clouds crowded the sky, which had a sick hue of green. The air hung heavy around us and carried an electricity that threatened to discharge unexpectedly. But was no rain, thunder or lightning, so the game got under way. Naturally, within minutes of the kick-off, the clouds released their rains and the air let loose with violent claps of thunder. We rushed to our cars. For nearly two hours we were trapped in our vehicles waiting out nature's fury. It turned out to be one of the best days we ever spent together as a family. We played word games, talked about school, told jokes and generally became better acquainted. When the coach finally rapped on our window to tell us the game would continue, we all let out a collective "ahhh" of disappointment.
 
Making everyone in the family feel a part of an activity can be tricky. After all, most kids don't want to just sit on the sidelines cheering on a brother or sister. Finding ways to include everyone ensures that soccer time is family fun time. Keep a calendar in a public area that clearly indicates the soccer game schedule. That way there aren't any surprises which can lead to hard feelings. Let family members act as the game statisticians keeping track of your player's touches, runs, and goals, as well as team accomplishments. Use sideline time to have conversations about everyone's activities, share some corny jokes and make plans for after the game. Let the children who aren't playing choose an activity for the family to share later in the day or the next day.
 
Travel time can be family time too.  During short trips, throw out a topic and let each person give one piece of information. For example ask "What would be your perfect meal?" or "What are your three favorite movies?" On longer trips you can play trivia on a topic of someone's choosing. The person who gets the right answer gets to ask the next question. We once did soccer uniform trivia, where we had to declare the manufacturer of a professional team's kit. The boys giggled with delight as Bruce and I failed again and again to get the right answers! We also had a game box for longer road trips that included road bingo cards, magnetic art boards, and fun facts flash cards. While popping in a DVD or video game can whittle away a couple hours, they are isolating activities. So insist on some group activities on the road to get the family interacting. You can play the license plate game or the alphabet game which can open the door for some additional conversation.
 
Youth soccer doesn't just need to happen with the team. Play as a family at a local park or put some Pugg goals up in the back yard for some regular family sport. Just like you can play basketball "HORSE" in the driveway, you can play it with soccer. Share the fun with everyone in the family. Set up some cones and do a dribbling race with the winner getting to choose where to go get a treat. Play soccer tennis with a rope strung between two trees. Before a big game, have everyone in the family write a note of encouragement on the player's soccer ball. During dinner do a soccer rule contest.     

Families can design and set up a "Wall of Fame" to contain the various triumphs of sport, school, and church. Give each child a poster board to decorate, then fasten them to a hallway or family room wall and let the children decide what they want to display. You can occasionally take a picture of the wall to send to grandparents and other relatives so they can share in the pride. Don't limit the wall to just the exemplary efforts, but also to those things that show the spunk or creativity of a child. That's why kids should have a say in what goes up on the wall. You can create a new board each year on the child's birthday so that the wall gets updated. Then you can fold and store them away as a wonderful memory to discover years later.
 
 At any moment a family bonding time can arise. Just as we discovered that stormy day to be a wonderful couple of hours to connect, other soccer families can find those moments too.  Be open to recognizing when you can share these times whether it be at a fast food restaurant laughing over a slip on the pitch when you can all share your most embarrassing moments, or after practice when your player wants to shoot just a few more balls in the net and you can all join in. Soccer brings everyone together, so cherish those moments and find ways to enhance them. Let go of deadlines in order to extend the togetherness. Listen to your kids and follow up on what they say. Soccer talk can lead to family talk.
 

Versatile Players

Sam Snow

Is there an article, blog post, or statement dealing with the positioning of U11-U12 players over the course of a season, or a year? I coach in a couple of different frameworks, but in one framework I just encountered a clash of sorts with a town administrator. This U12 girls' team plays in a results-oriented league with playoffs in the spring. I stated in an initial email to the team that my approach to playing U11-U12 players is to play them everywhere with equal time, and not just one position per game but one position over several successive games then moving to a new position for several successive games. For example, one player might play left forward for three games, then she will move to right back, for three games, and so on, such that the year ends with her having played in every position for a period of a few weeks. I've already lost this fall 2011 team because of this stated philosophy since the town administrator, overseeing the set of town U12 girl's teams, disagrees with this approach. He feels that, especially in a results-oriented league, with playoffs, and especially with respect to the keeper, that U11-U12 players should not be exposed to all the positions in this way. I feel strongly about playing U11-U12 players in all the positions in the way I stated previously, even in a results-oriented league. However, it occurred to me that I have not read this anywhere as a recommendation or directive from US Youth Soccer. I'm afraid now that I might be taking a stance on something that is without foundation so to speak. If there is any relevant reference material it would be helpful to know of it. I have looked but haven't found any.

I replied stating that I think that with the U12 age group you can have a player preform in all defensive positions before moving that player to the midfield line or the forward line.  So, rather than play right fullback for three matches and then move to center forward, the move could be to center or left fullback.  Once a player has played all positions (roles) in one line on the team (defender, midfielder and forward) move that player to the next line on the team.  For example, a player who has performed all positions in the defender line then moves to the midfield line and later to the forward line.

We believe that through the U14 age group players should be exposed to all of the positions in a team, including goalkeeper.  However, beginning with U12 and then on into the U13 and U14 age groups the players could begin to function 50% of the time in one particular line in the team; i.e., goalkeeper, defender, midfielder or forward.

The intent is to help the players learn about positioning over role specific positions.  By playing all of the positions in a team they better learn the principles of play and the particular tactics that go with each position on a team.  This well rounded approach to development will aid them greatly when they begin to specialize in a few positions beginning in the U15 age group.

Finally, it must be noted that this versatility will aid the players not only in making the cut on future teams (club, high school, college and pro), and it also helps them to be more adaptable to new team formations. Top notch soccer teams can play more than one team formation, requiring adaptability by the players. For example read this article on Barcelona which can change from 4-4-2 to 3-4-3.  http://sportsillustrated.cnn.com/2011/writers/jonathan_wilson/09/05/barcelona.343/index.html
 
"One of the big issues we face in educating coaches--is allowing [their] players to [play] non-position specific [roles]. Here we have arguably the best team in the world--full of flexible midfielders," says Paul Shaw, Coaching Education Director for Virginia Youth Soccer. The article supports, albeit some thought has to be given to make the connection, our approach that  girls U13 - U15 playing for US Youth Soccer Olympic Development Program should have a 3-4-3 and the same for the boys in the U13 - U14 age groups.
 
I have always said that in US Youth Soccer ODP I am looking for two types of players, goalkeepers and field players.  If you are a field player then I expect you to be versatile and be able to play two or more positions.  In my 32 years as an ODP coach there have constantly been center midfielders turned into outside midfielders, defenders and wingers.  Yet another reason for us to continue to teach that kids should be exposed to playing all positions through the U14 age group.