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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.

 

New League

Sam Snow

Now and then a group will attempt to start a new league in a state, across a few states or an entire region and on the rare occasion nationwide. On one hand it's good that folks are looking to improve the soccer environment. On the other hand the group may be biting off more than they can chew. Still folks will surge forward confident that they have it all sorted out. They write a plan, begin a budget, put down some ideas on a schedule, and perhaps even write some league rules. This information ends up in a document making the process slightly more formal.

Usually there are some unrealistic expectations in the document of their ability to underwrite the costs involved to the teams as the money has to come from somewhere.  It'll just end up being a hidden cost in the club (player) dues and the league will have to require money from the clubs to participate.  Groups who think they can do it better often are sure they can get sponsorships, but they rarely have a professional background in sports marketing to know the realities of getting cash from sponsors, especially in a bear market and a recession.

Additionally. simply organizing a league to help develop players hits only at the surface of player development.  The assumption that a league and set competition alone will deeply impact players is naïve and tells us they do not understand the complexities of player development.  Development for teenaged players MUST hit, in order, three key factors:
  1. The quality of your teammates
  2. The quality of your opponents
  3. The quality of your coaches
The answer is not, nor has it ever been more matches, but more quality training (review please U.S. Soccer Best Practices).  Therefore the most important environment to be improved is within the club.  More and better training is the key to developmental success.  However that's not as sexy to sell to the customers (parents) as are matches.  Yet what the consumers (players) need are top notch teachers (coaches) who can really help each individual player improve.  Coaches of that caliber are rare!

If a group hopes to find elite players for their clubs, colleges or the youth National Teams then they can cast only a small net if they are really covering all of the lodging, meal, ground transportation and staff costs.  This means many players in many parts of the country will be overlooked.  If it were possible to cover all of the expenses and still cast a large net to find every possible Olympic caliber player then U. S. Soccer and US Youth Soccer Olympic Development Program would already be doing so. It's unsophisticated to think the national governing bodies would not be making such efforts if it was currently possible.

Instead of creating new variations of existing programs we must focus on improving those programs already in motion. Yes let's look at new ideas, but concentrate our work on improving our current soccer culture.
 

Socrates Didn't Invent Soccer

Susan Boyd

I'm an optimist when it comes to TV viewing. I record dozens of shows with the very real intent of watching them all, then spend fifteen minutes once a week deleting most of them. If people ask me if I've seen a program I cheerfully answer "No, but I recorded it!" Every once in a while I have the opportunity to actually see one of the shows I recorded, generally because I'm shirking some other responsibility like laundry or writing. Earlier this week I watched an episode of "Numb3rs" about an FBI agent and his genius math brother who solves crimes using brute force and clever number theory. It's a slight drama, but entertaining. During this particular episode there was a crawl across the screen with the teaser, "Test your own math skills by trying the puzzles at CBS.com." I jumped at the opportunity to validate my intelligence (or scoff at the ridiculousness of the questions if I couldn't solve them). This week's puzzle concerned convergence using lines that bisected triangle sides and angles. While I enjoyed the questions, they led me to further consideration about convergence as it relates to soccer. Yes, I'm that obsessed with soccer!

Convergence in math means the same thing it does in English – a coming together from different directions at a single point (Encarta Dictionary). Soccer succeeds or fails because of convergence or the lack thereof. Yesterday, Robbie's team had a state championship play-off game that frustratingly demonstrated the elements of convergence. I should mention that convergence is either exhilarating or frustrating when it comes to soccer. Yesterday an opponent's foot converged twice with one of Robbie's teammate's faces. The second convergence resulted in thirteen stitches. The lightning and deluge converged with twilight to require an early game termination. The uneven new sod patches converged with an errant kick to insure an erratic bounce into the goal.   Players regularly converged for fouls or tackles or steals. We finally had an exhilarating convergence when a ball was struck from the corner by one forward while the other charged in, met it at the goal line and converged it right into the back of the net.

When you relate soccer anecdotes they usually involve convergence. So while you may not have stayed awake during your Geometry class, you still use the mathematical precepts to make your point. "I thought the ball was going in, but the keeper just managed to deflect it." "That defender came out of nowhere to steal the ball right off of my daughter's foot." "The ball caromed off the post and into the goal." "That dad got right in the official's face." Players converge at the end of the game in the traditional handshake. We even use convergence to get to the games when we set our GPS and it charts a course for us. It's creating a convergence between the spot we need to be and the route our vehicle travels even if it isn't a straight bisector.

My other favorite sport is baseball. I'm happy to spend a few hours at the ballpark absorbing the sights and sounds of a Brewers game.   On the face of it, baseball and soccer couldn't be more different in their production. Baseball is a game of fits and starts, especially in the eighth inning of a close game where pitching changes can make that one inning last nearly as long as the rest of the game. Players in the outfield might go long minutes before even moving, much less chasing a ball. But when they are needed, they are needed in a spectacular hurry. Soccer is nearly non-stop, everyone is needed all the time, and players have to be constantly on the move, readjusting their position depending upon the direction and speed of play. But I realized that what I love about baseball I also love about soccer. Both games require mathematical precision which is based on convergence.

That's why I don't like watching baseball on TV, because the camera dictates where I look. I want to survey the field, see where the outfielders are shifting, judge the wind, watch runners lead off, and get a good feel for the ball's direction both when hit and when thrown. Players make judgments about their position based on the angle they expect the ball to travel. In other words, they place themselves in the mostly likely spot for convergence or near enough to a range of convergence points. There are some intuitive calculations concerning trajectories, resistance, and velocity that dictate the point of convergence and the likelihood of success. Pitchers, hitters, infielders, outfielders, and coaches are all doing their own math in their heads to determine what will create the best outcome. Pitchers want to have their pitches converge with the catcher's mitt, hitters want their bats to converge with the ball, and fielders want their mitts to converge with any hit. Likewise a soccer player makes a decision about using left or right foot, inside or outside, force of the kick, and obstacles to pick the most likely point of convergence with the ball that will alter its route right into the goal or to another teammate's foot. These players do this all within a blink of the eye and they do it hundreds of times in a game. Even more amazingly, unlike math students who can do their calculations in relative calm and without immediate criticism, players resolve their mathematical equations in an instant with on the spot evaluations given at the top of someone's lungs. There's no time to recalculate, check the variables, ponder the choices. It's now or never and then on to the next problem.

While I don't advocate protractors and graphic calculators as part of an essential soccer kit, I do recognize the beauty of math in what is happening on the field. The next time you watch a ball leave a player's foot and land perfectly in front of another player, or see a player suddenly step in front of an opponent to triumphantly settle a goal kick, or witness that awesome bend it like Beckham moment, give pause to consider Euclid, Aristotle, and Pythagoras. Sure, these ancient Greeks didn't invent soccer, but their geometrical explorations resulted in tools for analyzing and improving soccer play. With their acute understanding of convergence, they probably would have made fantastic coaches. Maybe they were. "Go Polyhedrons!"
 

Speed and Agility

Sam Snow

Recently, I received a good question from a club director that I think may be of interest to a number of coaches across the nation working with youth players.
 
Does US Youth Soccer have any literature/guidelines regarding at what age it is appropriate for players to start speed and agility training?
 
I do not have a paper which speaks directly to this topic. However we do know from our colleagues in exercise physiology that there's no point to speed training until the body is mature enough to respond to the training.  This means after the child has reached Peak Height Velocity (PHV). Endurance or speed training becomes effective at 12 to 18 months after PHV, which is about 13 years, 6 months for boys and 11 years, 6 months for girls. Significant results are realized for boys at about 15 years of age and for girls at about 14 years of age and vary with each individual's physical development.
 
One practical solution is to use the onset of PHV as a reference point for the design of optimal individual programs with relation to 'critical' or 'sensitive' periods of trainability during the maturation process. Prior to the onset of PHV, boys and girls can train together and chronological age can be used to determine training, competition and recovery programs. 
The average age for the onset of PHV is twelve and fourteen years for females and males respectively. The onset of PHV is influenced by both genetic and environmental factors, including climate, cultural influences and social environment. 
The onset of PHV is a reference point that provides valuable information for training the players' energy systems and central nervous system, regardless of chronological age. Using simple measurements, PHV can be monitored and training can be related and optimized to exploit the critical periods of trainability. This approach can enhance the development of short and long-term individually optimized training, competition and recovery programs such as the optimal window of accelerated adaptation to stamina (endurance), strength, speed, skill and suppleness training – or the five S's of training and performance. It should be pointed out that all energy systems are always trainable, but during the so-called 'critical' periods accelerated adaptation will take place if the proper volume, intensity and frequency of exercise are implemented.
 
What are important to train in childhood are balance, agility, and coordination through a movement education approach. You can also begin to work on form (correct body posture and controlled movement) beginning at U-10. Teaching proper running and jumping mechanics is far more important in the U-10 and U-12 age groups than the speed of a sprint or the height of a jump. Those factors will show up once the child reaches adolescence. Biologically adolescence ranges from age 15 to 23, with each player coming into and finishing adolescence at their own rate. Here are some facts on speed training once they have reached late puberty or early adolescence.
 
·         Pure speed- the ability to cover the distance between two points in the shortest amount of time.
·         Technical speed- the ability to perform skills at speed.
·         Mental speed- ability of the player to be aware of all factors, conditions and options inside and outside of the game.
 
At any level, speed separates the outstanding players from the average... So, soccer speed training sessions should play a major role in your training. Speed in soccer can be quite complex. It certainly entails more than just running fast. When you talk about speed in the game, here are some of the attributes that will make for better players...
 
•             Quick speed off the mark
•             Quick acceleration over 10-15 yards
•             Good speed endurance
•             Speed in possession of the ball
•             Quickness of feet or agility
•             The ability to quickly change direction
•             The ability to execute skills quickly
•             Last but not least... speed of thought
 
You can see from the above that good 100 yard sprinters don't necessarily have the attributes to be quick soccer players. And by the same token some players who are not typically fast runners can excel in soccer if they have sharp feet and quick speed of thought. Remember that old phrase...'The first 10 yards are in your head.'
 
Absolute speed or the ability to run fast is determined by a number of factors - the obvious one being genetics. But if a player has been blessed with less than favorable sprinting genes don't worry too much. A good soccer speed training program will improve the efficiency of the muscle fibers (if not the type or amount of them) and that will make players faster. So, one goal of your soccer speed training schedule should be to increase their sprinting power - particularly their acceleration and speed off the mark. Soccer players rarely sprint more than 50 yards in a straight line.
 
A second, and equally important, goal is to increase your speed endurance. Speed endurance training significantly improves physical recovery after a bout of repetitive sprints. The body's ability to remove lactic acid increases which can make such a difference to a player's game.
 
Thirdly, a soccer speed training program should improve agility, foot speed and reaction time. Exercises to improve agility don't tend to be physically taxing. The emphasis is on short, sharp movements of a high quality.
 
Finally, incorporating a ball into some of the speed and agility drills is important to make all those gains in speed transferable to the field of play.
 
As for speed of thought, that's one that we can begin to train at U-6 through game-like activities and using guided discovery in the coaching method. Coaches need to attend the National Youth License coaching course to learn more in these areas.
 

Garbo wouldn't have owned one

Susan Boyd

Seven years ago I swore I would never own a cell phone. Now I panic if I forget to toss it in my purse when I leave the house. Someone might want to talk to me and I won't be able to get back to them for an hour. I've become the woman who believes such a scenario ranks up there with the Hindenburg disaster. And I know I am not alone. Whenever a car on the freeway suddenly slows down for no apparent reason, we used to say "oh, a fuzz buster." Now we all nod our heads and say, "Cell phone call." I used to snap my head around when I heard some child call "mommy." Now that reaction is reserved for a cell phone ring tone released in a crowd. How did I get from total aversion to complete dependency? I blame it on soccer.

When the boys began playing on traveling teams, we found our family splintered on weekends. So it seemed reasonable to get cell phones so we could keep connected. We used the cell phones to let one another know about scores, home ETAs, great plays, and just to stay in touch. It didn't take long to add two more lines (I curse the "just $9.99 for each additional line up to five" come – on) for the boys because they needed to let me know when to pick them up from practice or to call for emergency runs for missing cleats or to text every living 15 year old in the world. Loaded up with photo and video sharing, unlimited texting, internet access, extra unlimited talk hours, and added minutes, each at an additional fee, we boarded the cell phone train and we can't get off. 

When I was a team manager I found my cell phone invaluable. It provided a means of averting disaster. I could call about missing referees, locked fields, inclement weather, cancelling a game, and for medical emergencies.   I was able to guide opposing teams to our fields around detours or traffic jams. Using my web connection, I located a soccer shop to buy dry socks for the team during a particularly wet and cold tournament. Before GPS became as ubiquitous as cell phones, I could use my cell to find coffee, restaurants for team lunches, and photocopier locations. Cell phones allow tournament organizers to quickly contact teams about field changes or game cancellations. Now with the Blackberry and other PDAs they have also become the means for e-mail and reporting/looking up scores. Just as many tournaments have moved to doing everything on line, we will probably see the move to using our cell phones to do more and more of the soccer "paperwork." I envision a day when teams will be registering for tournaments on the way there, while in the car or while sitting in the airport.

I do have two main complaints about cell phones (besides the expense). First, they are worse than cars and computers for losing their technological edge. As I am buying one cell phone, its newest prototype is being placed in the display cabinet. I personally couldn't care if I don't have a QWERTY keyboard since I rarely text message, nor do I need to attempt to read the NY Times on my postage stamp screen. But the problem is my son cares. So his phone goes from being "rad" to being "stupid" in the first four months of a two year contract. When the iPhone came out I was roundly criticized for not having had the foresight to select AT & T as our cell phone carrier the previous year. I am a continuing embarrassment because I still possess the same phone I got four years ago and my cell phone ring is "annoying." Second, cell phones are far too small. I place mine in the drink holder of my soccer chair and then when I fold up my chair the phone is soundlessly expelled like a geyser out of the holder and onto the grass. That's why I own a brilliant red phone. It makes it far easier to find when I return to the field 20 minutes later to locate what I lost.

Still, I have to admit that our soccer life has been made better through our cell phones. The nearly four years I drove to Chicago for practices and games were made safer with a cell by my side. Robbie felt less like he was losing all his social life because of those drives. He could stay in touch with friends and get some homework assistance through his cellular connections.

On the other hand I've seen some pretty creative cell phone usage in my soccer experiences. Coaches who have been sent off have used cell phones to continue their management of the game.   Even more interesting I know of a soccer coach who used his cell phone to call his son's team coach from the sidelines and offer coaching nuggets during the games. I'm guessing the suggestions were well-received since the team coach continued to take the calls. At one game I saw a father having a heated discussion with a sideline referee and kept thrusting his cell phone at the AR. He had taken video of a contested play and was trying to do his own version of a challenge.   At a tournament the police showed up at the game on the field next to us. Apparently one father had called 911 because he felt his son was being unfairly targeted by the opposing team. He had told the police that his son was being "beat up." He even used his phone to guide the police across the acres of fields to his exact location. I've also seen cell phones used as weapons heaved across the grass at a parent target during a verbal argument. 

Like any advancement in the sport, cell phones have their place, but need to be used wisely.   As they improve, we'll find ourselves depending on them more and more to the point that they will be a requirement not just for an emergency number but for a platform for accessing and distributing soccer data. This tiny (annoyingly so) convenience has become a significant part of the soccer kit. So I do begrudgingly accept that what I had feared would be an intrusion into my life has in fact become one, but one that I increasingly depend upon to make my soccer life more manageable. And there is this handy feature that I can use called the off button when I just want to be left alone.