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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.

 

Specialize in One Sport?

Sam Snow

The executive director for US Youth Soccer, Jim Cosgrove, was interviewed for an article for the May issue of SportsEvents Magazine on the issue of kids specializing in one sport -- and sometimes a single position – at a very young age (8-13). I think you'll be interested in the questions and comments.
 
1. Are you seeing a lot of kids specializing in one sport at an early age? If so, has this been increasing, decreasing or stayed about the same over the past few years?
JC: Yes there are children being asked to specialize in one sport and even one position early in their careers. My educated estimation is that the number of kids specializing early has increased over the last five years as participation in youth sports has increased over that time.
 
2. If you are seeing this trend, why do you think it is happening?
JC: The trend occurs because parents and/or coaches believe it will accelerate the youngster's development. They use examples from individual sports such as golf or gymnastics where early specialization can be appropriate and they apply that model to team sports. All team sports are classified as long-term development sports, so children should not specialize in only one sport until perhaps the late teenage years.
 
3. What do you consider to be the pros and cons of early specialization in sports?
JC: I cannot think of any pros to early specialization. The cons include poor athletic development, over-use injuries, emotional exhaustion and psychosocial burn-out. The too much-too soon syndrome also causes a jaded attitude toward the sport to develop by the mid to late teens.
 
4. At what age is specialization a good thing?
JC: Sports specialize too early in an attempt to attract and retain participants. 17-years-old and beyond is appropriate for specialization in a single sport. For soccer, position versatility is still important even at this age and especially for field players.
 
5. Can you provide some common sense recommendations to parents (and kids) who may believe that by focusing on one sport at a young age they will get college scholarships or become professional athletes?
JC: Approximately 2% of youth soccer players will earn a college scholarship to play soccer. Let your child play soccer to his or her content without an expectation for the big payoff of an athletic scholarship – there's much more money available for academic scholarships than athletic ones.
 
In conclusion, sports can be classified as either early or late specialization. Early specialization sports include artistic and acrobatic sports such as gymnastics, diving, and figure skating. These differ from late specialization sports in that very complex skills are learned before maturation since they cannot be fully mastered if taught after maturation.

Most other sports are late specialization sports. However, all sports should be individually analyzed using international and national normative data to decide whether they are early or late specialization.  If physical literacy is acquired before maturation, athletes can select a late specialization sport when they are between the ages of 12 and 15 and have the potential to rise to international stardom in that sport.

Specializing before the age of 10 in late specialization sports contributes to:
• One-sided, sport-specific preparation
• Lack of ABC's, the basic movement and sports skills
• Overuse injuries
• Early burnout
• Early retirement from training and competition

For late specialization sports, specialization before age 10 is not recommended since it contributes to early burnout, dropout and retirement from training and competition (Harsanyi, 1985).
 

Ke Nako

Susan Boyd

Sports often become the allegory for other events. Father's Day has families replaying Field of Dreams where baseball provides the connection between a resentful adult son and his deceased father. Football is the backdrop for improving racial relations in Remember the Titans. Even soccer has been the means for a daughter to earn her father's respect in Gracie or break loose from traditions while still honoring her roots in Bend it Like Beckham. But this year South Africa invites the world to its home to show its political, economic, and social renovations. South Africa won its bid for the World Cup in 2004 just 10 years after officially abolishing apartheid. The World Cup has become not only an allegory for what the world can achieve but for how people previously oppressed both politically and economically can triumph. No matter if South Africa wins their first match against Mexico on June 11, as a nation they will have the pride of showcasing their independence and growth.

But their first opportunity came in 1995, one year after apartheid was entirely abolished and just months into Nelson Mandela's first year as president of South Africa. That year South Africa hosted the Rugby World Cup. Their team, the Springboks, was all-white with one lone black player, Chester Williams. Mandela, however, saw the team as a significant binding symbol for his country in turmoil. The slogan "One Team, One Country" epitomized Mandela's vision for what a sport could achieve. He met opposition from both blacks and whites for his support of the "Boks," but he recognized that if they could win the World Cup the victory could be a moment of pride to be shared by everyone in the country. The movie Invictus and the ESPN documentary The 16th Man chronicle these watershed moments for a country teetering on the brink of either social collapse or political unity. When Mandela, a former black political prisoner, handed the World Cup trophy to captain Francois Pienaar, a white member of the former ruling class, it was against the background of a united nation of sports fans both black and white who for that moment felt the kinship of a shared victory. You couldn't write a better Hollywood script.

Most youth players were born after the abolishment of apartheid and long after the Civil Rights Act in the U.S. But it's important to recognize that not too many years ago many of the sports images we take for granted couldn't and didn't exist. Sports have always been a means to highlight and overcome injustices. Jesse Owens made mincemeat of Hitler's Aryan hopes in the 1936 Olympics with grace and humility, proving that no one race has the monopoly on talent and class. Integrated sports teams are now not only accepted but expected. Even golf, which is often played on private golf courses with strict membership policies, has evolved.   Part of getting golf included in the Olympics is whether or not it is played at all levels "without discrimination with a spirit of friendship, solidarity and fair play."

Sports have also been used as one tool to put pressure on discriminatory practices. In South Africa athletes faced ostracism from major world events including the Olympics, rugby friendlies, and soccer competitions because of their country's policy of apartheid. Add to that economic trade embargos, including the British actors' union refusing to allow the sale of British T.V. programs to South Africa. In 1992 most of these bans were lifted as the apartheid policies were slowly repealed. So bringing the World Cup to Africa for the first time and giving South Africa the stage for this event has greater significance than any other World Cup. A stable shift of power happened in 1994 and a continued growth to equality and integration has established South Africa as an example of how the end of oppression doesn't need to lead to instability and continued violence. 

Did the Rugby World Cup set the foundation for a smooth transition of power? That's probably giving one sporting event too much credit. But it certainly was one of the defining moments in South Africa coming together as "A Rainbow Nation" as Mandela called it. My sons are African American, and we had hoped to afford a trip to South Africa for this World Cup not only because we love soccer but because for the boys' heritage this is a watershed moment. But we will have to content ourselves with watching on TV with all the other millions of soccer fans. While we watch hopefully we will not forget the historical canvas on which this sporting event plays out. There will always be distrust, hatred, prejudice, and domination from one group towards another. It's human nature. But remembering that 20 years ago the relatives of the black players on South Africa's soccer team couldn't vote, had to live in areas specifically designated for how they were defined racially, couldn't go to university with whites, couldn't set foot in whites only beaches, restaurants, and stores, couldn't travel outside of their designated areas without government permission, and for most wouldn't have been allowed to play for the national team indicates how significant this change is for the country, the continent and the world. The official slogan of this World Cup is "Ke Nako (It's Time). Celebrate Africa's Humanity." I'm ready.
 

Watch the game

Susan Boyd

Professional soccer hits its stride in the spring. Feb. 28 was the Carling Cup won by Manchester United. May 15 was the FA Cup won by Chelsea. May 22 is the UEFA Cup played between Inter Milan and Bayern Munich – which will be decided before you read this blog but after I wrote it! And on June 12 the World Cup begins in South Africa. While the majority of youth players won't have the privilege of playing in any of these events and most won't even have a chance to see one of these matches live, youth players and their families should still make these and other professional games part of their TV viewing schedule.

I'm supposing many in America will watch the U.S. team play their three group games in the World Cup which kicks off against England June 12 at 2:30 p.m. (ET) on ABC.   The England team may be strong enough to win the Cup, so that game in particular should hold some exciting possibilities for American fans. The U.S. doesn't need to beat England to advance, although they do need to beat the other two in their group. But beating England would certainly up the stock for respect by the soccer community. The U.S. is ranked 14th in the world while England is ranked 8th, so there's a chance for an upset. Despite loyalty and expectations, watching the World Cup shouldn't be limited to the U.S. matches.

Many of the world's greatest players return to their home countries to compete in the World Cup. Didier Drogba, the stand-out player on Chelsea, plays for the Ivory Coast. You might not consider looking for the Ivory Coast games in the World Cup schedule, but that team will provide some of the best soccer you'll see. Overshadowed by the Cameroon and Nigerian teams they have fought their way up to a respectable 4th place in the African continental rankings with some strong victories in the months leading up to the World Cup, including a 3-1 win over Ghana. Other players of note should encourage us to watch more than just the U.S.: Samuel Eto'o from Cameroon a member of the UEFA finalist Inter Milan, Mark Schwarzer from Australia a member of Fulham UEFA Cup runners-up, and Theofanis Gekas from Greece, a member of Eintracht Frankfurt and the top European World Cup qualifier goal scorer.

Youth players and their parents should make it a regular habit to watch as many professional games as possible. Developing that keen eye and inherent understanding of the sport through consistent exposure to the highest level of play remains an essential component to both succeeding at and loving the game. Parents can benefit through a clearer understanding of the rules and how far rough play can go before referees make a call. Watching replays of fouls, goals, questionable play, outstanding play, and set plays helps both youth players and parents appreciate the nuances and requirements of the game. Most of us didn't play the sports we watch but we understand them because we watch them so often. 

When families watch professional soccer games on a regular basis it helps establish the legitimacy of and respect for the sport. If we send the message that soccer isn't worth watching then we also send the message that it isn't worth playing. Kids need to know that their choices are considered significant and valuable. Sitting down and enjoying a game together gives that support unambiguously to the player. In addition there's that aspect of bonding over a game that I've always thought justifies the hours of soccer viewing that goes on in my household.  Maybe I'm just rationalizing so I don't have to feel so badly that the grass isn't getting mowed or the screens aren't being replaced. But I do believe for the really big games, those memories of sharing the moment with one another outweigh some of the chores.

Here are links to the TV schedules for upcoming soccer games. Take the time to click on them, print them off, and then decide which ones you'll watch as a family. I can guarantee not only some serious thrills, but also some excellent insights to this game the world loves.
 
 
 
 

Technique and Injury

Sam Snow

A coach from the Midwest had these comments and question about a soccer injury.

"I've had a client come to me with some injury/rehab issues attributed to ball striking and playing the long ball. This is a U-14 elite player with over developed quads, extremely tender hamstrings and poor gait. Her physical therapist and I are trying to find some research on this and then document our process. I've been doing a lot of work with players on ball striking and athletic development which is why they came to me, but I've never seen such poor mechanics and extreme injury at such a young age.
Are there any resources on this matter?"

I then posed the question to Dr. Don Kirkendall of FIFA F-MARC. He is also a regular presenter at the US Youth Soccer adidas Workshop. Here's his reply:

"I am not sure what injury they are asking about as 'tender hamstrings' doesn't tell me much. This could be part of the recovery process from a strain injury, delayed soreness from unaccustomed activity, or microtrauma from such processes as overstretch or weakness or the poor technique. Without a better description, I'd only be speculating.

An imbalance between quad and hamstring strength is an issue on a number of fronts. Most of the discussion is around injury which the Physical Therapist of this email would be aware of. But poor hamstring strength could also impair technique.

Some of it might be bound up in the male/female differences in kicking. Men approach the ball faster than women and then have a slower angular knee extension velocity than women. Thus women make up for the slow approach by extending the leg faster in an attempt to gain ball velocity. But this puts the knee at risk for extension injury. Could stronger hamstrings help? A good question. Hamstring strengthening has been advocated for reducing strain injury, especially at the highest levels of play in men, and been very successful.

On the strength-skill interaction, during ballistic movements, the hamstring muscles contract to prevent over/hyper extension of the knee. Weak hamstring muscles, which slow down terminal knee extension during kicking, could lead to a number of different sources of knee pain during kicking. So, the player would alter the kicking motion to compensate for the weak hamstring muscles and avoid the pain. She might try to approach faster and use less knee extension. Or she could be kicking mostly from the hip and not rapidly extending the knee. Or she could be doing everything else well right up until the point in the kicking cycle when it's time to extend the knee forcefully. Both would reduce the stress across the knee near forceful extension and avoid pain, but her ability at 'striking and playing the long ball' would be reduced. Try kicking hard with a straight leg.

Of course, there could be structural or other soft tissue issues at the knee that could be the source of pain and poor technique.

Here is a male/female comparison of kicking kinematics that Bill Barfield did that might be helpful. 
There may be references at the end they might find helpful."