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Sam's Blog is a bi-weekly addition to the US Youth Soccer Blog. Sam Snow is the Coaching Director for US Youth Soccer.

 

Juggling

Sam Snow

An interesting thought was sent to me recently from Shawn Wilson concerning the skill of juggling the ball as a part of player development. I think it is a good look at juggling and opens us up for some discussion. While this matter is not a huge one in youth soccer, it does point us toward more effort in training sessions on ball skills. So the inquery was this:

I would love to hear your take on the relative importance of juggling on the thighs. I think it is over emphasized amongst youth soccer players. I see value in encouraging players to spend time with the ball, but I also think that allowing/encouraging players to demonstrate juggling that is dominated by the thighs is counterproductive to developing players with true touch and control for the game.

Now here's the passage from Shawn which prompted our dialogue:

My son recently joined a highly competitive U-11 classic team. His new coach at the first training session asked him what his juggling record is to which he told the coach "67". The coach did not give any positive feedback but instead pointed out that two players on the team are over 100, and one of which is actually over a 1,000, quite impressive indeed. Further discussion on the topic revealed that of those 1,000 touches, the vast majority (over 80 percent estimated) were with the thighs. This is not uncommon amongst youth soccer players. Juggling on the thighs is very prevalent to the point of dominating juggling, especially when a total count is the emphasis. 

My wife was observing the interaction and as the conversation continued felt compelled to point out that with our son we do not "count" thigh touches. To clarify, with my players I encourage them to use the thighs as a controlling surface but try to keep them from fixating on thigh to thigh juggling. When addressing juggling with my team I set up contests in a variety of ways. When going for simple total counts, I only allow feet and head to count, but all legal surfaces (including thighs) are in play for keeping the streak going. We also focus on juggling activities that force the player to move the ball from surface to surface on command (such as "climb the mountain" or juggling "h-o-r-s-e"). 

When my wife pointed this out to the coach, the coach got somewhat defensive and countered that, "a lot of the game is played on the thighs". Perhaps my wife should not have offered any response, but she did so in an effort to preserve my son's confidence in front of his new teammates. 

The fact is that not much of the game is played on the thighs at all. Just this morning I am watching Chelsea and Manchester United in the FA Community Shield. These are two of the best teams in the world, loaded with highly skilled players. Through 73 minutes, I observed the ball played off the thigh once. That's right, one time! Chelsea's right wing used his thigh to settle the ball to the floor near minute 26 from a pass played in the air to him. Furthermore, I have never seen a high level player move the ball from thigh to thigh in a match or even move the ball thigh to thigh while juggling or warming up. 

Ronaldinho, when in his prime, demonstrated the best ball control in the world. Viewing video of him reveals that for 2-3 minutes of juggling, he plays the ball off his thighs 1-2 times, and never does he move the ball thigh to thigh.

Perhaps, all of this comes across as a little hard core on my part. It is. But I do appreciate the skill and concentration required to juggle a ball thigh to thigh for several hundred touches. And if a young player can do this, then it should be recognized as an impressive achievement. But the point I am making is that focusing on thigh juggling to that degree is a mistake. Juggling is only valuable if it ultimately improves a player's touch (especially first touch) and control within the actual game of soccer. For this reason, young players should be encouraged to juggle primarily with their feet (preferably both feet).

Here's the response I sent:

I agree with you that juggle is a means to an end. The end being more confidence with the ball, improved balance and limb control, visually getting better at reading the spin, flight and bounce of the ball and finally to learn controlled impact with the ball to either settle or propel it (touch on the ball). Do Americans who juggle do so on the thigh too much? Quite likely so. I feel though that this issue is less of a problem than the fact that too little juggling is taught or encouraged by coaches in the first place. I think that juggling is a useful tool for improving in many of the areas mentioned above. Juggling can also be a good warm-up and/or cool-down activity. So let's get more young players out there learning how to lift the ball and then to juggle it. And yes, please encourage touches up and down the body. Even the juggling tricks, while not used in a match, help to build confidence. That confident attitude of a player's mastery of the ball is invaluable to quality match performance. Finally, on the note of one's record of juggles in a row, I do not see a practical need for anything over 100. After that record is achieved juggling becomes an end in itself and not the means to improvement in the areas mentioned in the second sentence above.
 

Soccer cycle

Susan Boyd

This past weekend I ran into the president of my boys' first soccer club whom I hadn't seen for about four years. He was with his granddaughter and her friend both dressed in a variant of the same red and white stripped club uniform the boys had worn years before. I had always considered this club the bread and butter training for the boys. The coaches were knowledgeable and dedicated and they had high expectations for their players and their teams. But the club suffered from the same problem many good clubs do – not being able to attract enough strong players to be competitive across the board. As a result, once players grew old enough to know that they wanted to make soccer their sport, they left for clubs they perceived as stronger and more able to provide them with a pathway to college.

Bryce's team completely dissolved at tryouts for U-15. The first night five players showed up and the second night only Bryce showed up. These are the hard knocks of the business of youth soccer. Parents want to engineer the best path for their kids to that holy grail of a college scholarship and panic easily if they suspect players are jumping ship. This musical chair mentality means some very good players are left out in the cold without a team to play on. It happened to Bryce and it took us from July to November to find a team for him – although I admit that it's tougher when you're a keeper.

I liked this club. First of all it was convenient to our home, which any parent who drives kids to practices will tell you is a major factor in selecting a team. Second, as I said, the coaches were good. One coach in particular had a huge influence on Robbie's development. And so long as we played in the premier level of state league, we were assured of strong competition. Most tournaments were within a five hour radius – another plus because it cut down on travel expenses. And the fees were reasonable. An ancillary plus was that many of the boys' friends played on their teams facilitating car pooling.

Although some kids have the wonderful experience of staying with the same club for their entire youth soccer experience, most kids either switch clubs or have so many of their teammates switch to other clubs that their team doesn't even vaguely resemble the team they had just a year earlier. Most of us parents don't have much to go on in deciding where our kids will play. We really can only look at superficial factors such as wins or how many kids went on to play college soccer. But those factors can be deceiving. If a club cherry-picks the best players from other clubs, the wins come from having a stronger team and not necessarily from good development. And it stands to reason that if you loot the best players in the area, you'll be able to boast of the most college scholarship winners. On the other hand, if you want your child to continue to have strong competition between teams and among the players on his or her own team, then going with a club's reputation for having the best players isn't necessarily a bad decision.

Ideally a team can develop as a unit and stick together as a unit, but that rarely happens. Kids at age 6 will have different limits to their development. Some kids won't have speed, others will lose interest, others yet will excel in coordination. There's very little chance of predicting where a kid will be in ten years time. So gathering a group of kids together doesn't mean they will be together for any length of time.   As parents we have to be prepared for change because it will inevitably come. That preparation should include watching some practices of other clubs to see how the coaches work with the kids and whether or not you feel comfortable with them coaching your kids. Talk to parents whose kids are in the club and talk to parents whose kids have left the club. It's important to hear what the strengths and weaknesses are, but equally important to read between the lines of sour grape testimonials.

There's no perfect formula for the path your son or daughter should take in youth soccer. Each family needs to decide what factors are most important to them. Clubs are social centers, training grounds, conduits to college scout exposure, exercise centers, places to relax, and sources of pride. Families need to rank the aspects of a club along with things such as expense, travel commitment, ease of getting to and from practices, competition, and coaching staff. Parents and their kids need to continually examine how important going to the next level in soccer is. They need to figure out if they want to press forward because of a passion for the sport or the need to succeed or both. And all families need to be prepared for disappointment. Not getting into the club of your dreams can be devastating emotionally, but doesn't need to be devastating athletically.   Lots of good options exist beyond the "top" club in your area.

When I saw those girls in their uniforms, it created a bit of a lump in my throat. I remembered the good friends we made at the club, the great coaches, and the confidence of belonging. It was a painful separation, first when Bryce's team dissolved and then when Robbie switched clubs. But new talent moves in, teams rise and succeed, and the club continues with the same mission and energy. It's all part of the youth soccer cycle.
 

Great expectations

Susan Boyd

The only thing consistent about my mail carrier is that he is inconsistent. Mail can be delivered any time between noon and 4:55 p.m. I've tried to figure out if he has a consistent schedule for the day of the week, but that hasn't proven to be the case. When I need to get to the bank with a check I know will be delivered that day, he shows up at 4:55 p.m. when the bank closes at 5 p.m. That much I can count on.

So you may be asking, "What does your mail delivery have to do with soccer or youth sports in general?" Well, as I was waiting yesterday for the mail I got to thinking that we have expectations about how things should go in our lives and those expectations surround a level of consistency. We expect our pay checks to be automatically deposited when we're told they'll be, we expect schools to only close for emergencies, we expect people to show up on time for appointments, we expect gas prices to rise but we also expect to be pleasantly surprised sometimes, and we expect Brett Favre to ascend from the ashes of retirement another year. There's nothing wrong with expectations in our adult world, but when they start to spill over into youth sports they become a problem.

Like my mail carrier the only thing consistent about youth soccer is its inconsistency.   For example, just consider the elements that change for every game and affect not only whether a game will be played or not but how that game is played. Bryce's U-13 team played in the semi-finals of the State Championships following a torrential storm that left lakes on the playing field and especially at the lower end of the field in front of the goal. Bryce was scored on three times in 10 minutes because balls shot towards him stopped suddenly in the moat surrounding the goal mouth and out of reach or skittered in an odd direction. The opponents only had to kick the ball out of the water past him into the net showering him with a muddy spray for extra demoralization. By the time we reversed ends of the field at half time, our team had given up. We expected to win the game since we had beaten this team handily three times during the season, but so much for expectations.

Or consider how kids change in just a few months. As they grow they can become awkward as they learn their boundaries. The kid who scored three goals a game might now be the kid who couldn't hit the ocean with his spit if he was floating in the middle of it. Or the big, strong athletic kid returns for spring season and finds out that over the winter everyone became big, strong athletic players. And if you expect a new pair of $200 soccer cleats to last a year, then you'll be disappointed when after two months those barely used cleats are a size too small. Your daughter might have Abby Wambach and Casey Nogueira posters all over her room. You buy her the best ball, cleats, and shin guards available. She talks soccer non-stop and you expect her to make the national team. Then one day, Justin Bieber takes over her room and soccer is passé. 

When we parents bring our expectations to the soccer field we can often create uncomfortable and bullying situations. We may find ourselves yelling at the kid who isn't scoring because we expected him to maintain his consistent level of scoring. We may have a far too strong reaction to losing a game which our kids see as having failed us. We may be too hard on our child who is struggling with the clumsiness of a growth spurt. We certainly don't have any patience with referees who don't meet our expected standard of perfection in calls. We may expect the parents of an opposing team to be snooty or pompous because their team is highly ranked, which means we might leap on the only moment of snootiness one parent exhibits. 

Part of our expectations is based on what we see adults do. When Rickie Weeks bobbles the ball at second base we Brewers' fans start booing because we expect someone who makes a yearly salary equal to our lifetime salary to do his job consistently with perfection. And though it seems obvious that we can't have those same expectations with our kids, it's difficult not to. We're conditioned to expect perfection from our sports' stars and that expectation transfers very easily to our own little sports' stars. We also expect the same level of muscle development, motor skills, and eye-hand coordination that adults possess. But of course that won't come for years for our kids. A sport like soccer has so many nuances that someone can spend a lifetime just trying to acquire half of the soccer abilities possible. Yet we often tell our kids what they should be doing when they haven't yet developed the physical abilities to do it. When the kids are young many parents have adult expectations which lead to tears and resentment, even a wish not to play anymore.

Kids absolutely won't be consistent in their soccer play. There are too many variables that interrupt the expected behaviors and outcomes. Adult players develop more consistency, but even they have to deal with injuries, field conditions, fatigue, and mental lapses that can result in unexpected play. I can be frustrated with my mail carrier because he obviously runs his route differently every day. This helps him not get bored, but leaves me with delays and no ability to predict his arrival. I pay him, so I expect him to work more responsibly for me. I can get mad. But when it comes to my kids, I have to just let things flow whatever way the field tips that week. I may want to expect better play from them, but I have no idea what the coaches have told them, what their mindset is that day, and how they are feeling. So I need to relax and just enjoy the game. I'll let the coaches deal with their expectations which may be unrealistic or may be spot on, but that's their issue, not mine. I expect only one thing from my kids which is that they complete their commitment. I've only waivered on that expectation once. But meeting commitments is one expectation that the kids can live up to and achieve and is something that will serve them well as they grow older. I just wish my mail carrier understood his commitment to me.
 

Build it and the game grows

Sam Snow

I'm in Albuquerque, N.M. to teach a National Youth License coaching course. We have 36 candidates in the course, and it is going quite well. The course is set up to take place over two weekends. I have stayed in the state during the week between the course weekends to work with New Mexico Youth Soccer.  

Last night we had a well-attended round table discussion with club directors and league managers. We spoke about the U.S. Soccer Best Practices document and the soon-to-be-released US Youth Soccer Player Development Model. We talked about the many resources for coaches (articles, DVDs, books) available from US Youth Soccer and how we can get those resources into the hands of recreational coaches. One of the new resources is our new DVD on coaching the principles of play in Small-Sided Games. We hope to have that disc available by the end of 2010, if not sooner. 

We discussed parent education in a soccer club and how that impacts nearly every aspect of operating a club from training sessions and tournaments to life lessons. We even conferred on growing the game in Native American reservations and pueblos. There are already small soccer clubs in many of those communities, and the State Association is teaching Youth Module coaching courses there.

Last Monday, I went with Gloria Faber, office administrator, Josh Groves, technical director, and Jim Tilley, executive director, of New Mexico Youth Soccer to visit three soccer complexes on the west side of town. Two of those complexes are brand new. They have been built by the Northwest Rio Grande League to serve thousands of players. One of the complexes has grass fields with lights and artificial fields will soon be constructed. The site will also feature training areas for the teams in the league. Check out this article on developing training grounds at your soccer complex, click here.

Tonight, I run a model training session for state staff and club coaches in the area with a U-12 team. This is going to be a blast!