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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.

 

Grassroots Soccer

Sam Snow

Recently I've had some correspondence with Nick Levett from the The Football Association. Nick is the National Development Manager for Youth and Mini-Soccer in England. He had inquired about the status of Small-Sided Games in the U.S.A. So, I thought you'd be interested to read of the progress being made on this topic from both sides of the pond.

Hi Sam,

I hope you are well and enjoying the delights of fall setting in.  

I have now officially started a new job as National Development Manager (Youth and Mini-Soccer) and looking into a number of things that probably cross paths with your role. The main two areas of work that are going to be driving my attention are around formats of football and a competition strategy in England. We have a number of issues with pitch sizes, numbers of players per team in different age groups as well as trying to be creative to approach dealing with the birth bias challenges!

For example, we now have every format of football on offer for children from 7 years of age including Manchester United playing 4v4 in their Academy, grassroots mini-soccer offering 5v5/6v6/7v7, most professional clubs playing 8v8 from U-9 to U-11, then we have 9v9 as an option from U-11 to U-13, but most people choose to play 11v11 from U-11….!!! We have a bit of a mix!

What's the current situation in the U.S.? Do grassroots and professional clubs play the same structure at the same age groups? What does your Association recommend and how well does this get delivered at a local level? What age do your grassroots teams start to play in leagues for points and trophies?

Interested to hear your thoughts on this one!

Best wishes, Nick
 
Here's my response.

Hi Nick,

Congratulations on the new job and I'm sure you are working diligently getting the new responsibilities underway.

We are having many of the same issues you are in regard to Small-Sided Games (SSG). One of our challenges is that our national governing body, U.S. Soccer, has not mandated SSG. However they do endorse the playing format for U-12 and younger. Take a look at the Best Practices for Coaching Soccer in the United States document via this link.  U.S. Soccer is now making an effort to implement these Best Practices nationwide.

Also look at the SSG Resource Center on the US Youth Soccer web site via this link.  The National Program Overview will show you how we are doing on implementation. For largely political reasons, we do not yet have uniform implementation nationwide. Although it must be stated that the hurdles are not just political as many folks are convinced that children will not learn how to play 11-a-side football if they do not do so by the U-12 age group. There are other reasons too for the reluctance to embrace SSG, such as "well in my country when I was a lad we played 11v11 football and we were just fine." They could be from Scotland, Argentina, Italy, or England, you name it they're here. The only problem is they are unaware of the changes going on in their former homeland.

Now, to the professional clubs, the system of them having youth teams is much less prevalent here than in Europe; so a few of the MLS teams have youth teams, but not all. WPS is a new league and they cannot afford to sponsor youth teams right now. Some of the youth teams with pro teams do play SSG, but most simply follow the local formats. However some of the clubs, such as FC Dallas, have taken on an internal development approach. Their manual is attached to this message for you (Editor's note: if you would like a copy of this manual just drop me an E-mail note and I'll send a copy to you).

When do our grassroots clubs begin to play for trophies? It varies by state association. For the majority that begins at U-12, but some do begin at U-10. We are trying to move everyone to U-12, but with other youth soccer organizations in the country competing with us in the market place it makes it doubly difficult to make such changes. If you will remind Les Howie (Editor's note: Les Howie is the Head of Grassroots Coaching for The FA) and Jamie Houchen (Editor's note: Jamie Houchen is the Acting Head of FA Learning for The FA) to ask me about these topics when they come to our 2010 US Youth Soccer adidas Workshop next February I can get into more detail.

Regards, Sam
 
And finally Nick's latest reply.

That's great Sam, thanks for the information. I'll have a read through with interest. I think we are heading towards a bit of a climax in England where we need a national look at the children's football system from all of football; not just grassroots but to include volunteers, administrators and the professional game. A radical look at implementing a modern and child-based system is needed.

And if you have any closed-minded English coaches you come across that need some 'homeland' updating I'm happy to help!

Best wishes, Nick
 

Oh the Gaul

Susan Boyd

When a single soccer goal ends up being argued in publications as diverse as the Huffington Post, India Times, and Wall Street Journal, you know it's a big deal. Add the drama of a David and Goliath story and international intrigue to create a tsunami of blogs, editorials, and irate message boards. Wednesday Thierry Henry, a French player known for his grace on the field and his integrity off the field, clearly used his left hand to control the ball in the box and then play it to his teammate William Gallas which tied Ireland 1-1. Of the three on-field officials all were struck momentarily blind at the exact same moment. None of them saw the handball, and so the goal stood. To add insult to injury a further review of the play also shows that two French players were most likely off-side. So France went on to secure its berth in the 2010 World Cup and Ireland did not. Even Henry admitted that he had "unintentionally" handled the ball, but stated that since the referees didn't call the foul, he continued to play. He says he told the center ref immediately following the goal and let the captain of the Irish team know. He even suggested that a replay of the game would probably be the fairest way to handle the incident.

When Ireland approached FIFA to request several ways of rectifying the situation including replaying the game or outright awarding the victory and the World Cup berth to Ireland rather than France, FIFA's reply was swift and forthright: "The Laws of the Game state . . . The decisions of the referee regarding facts connected with play, including whether or not a goal is scored and the result of the match, are final." Therefore the game stands. There was some precedent for replaying the game. In 2005 Bahrain played Uzbekistan in a World Cup qualifier. There the referee disallowed a successful penalty kick for Uzbekistan because of early encroachment of an Uzbekistan player into the penalty zone. The rules state that the penalty kick would then be replayed, but the referee instead awarded Bahrain a free kick. Therefore FIFA ordered the replay because the referee had not properly interpreted the rules.

All of this controversy leads to the inevitable two questions: What is fair? Should instant replay be introduced to soccer?  Fairness ends up being a relative concept whenever a variety of elements exist in determining fairness. Rules are established as a means of containing controversy by preempting challenges. FIFA says that what the referee sees is what happens on the field. If the referee can be persuaded by fellow referees that he or she missed something the decision can be changed so long as play has not restarted and the game is not over. Clearly (or perhaps blindly) what the referee observed was a legal goal. Since everyone agrees to play by the rules, then the rules have to be followed. Complicating the issue of fairness becomes the overall attitude that FIFA seeds brackets in such a way as to insure that the big guns get into the World Cup and the smaller nations suffer. So when a big gun wins because of an illegal play, the clarions of anger will be louder and more strident than ever.

Could this all have been avoided had there been instant replay? Probably, although the deeper issues of how FIFA conducts the qualifying rounds would still fester. Nevertheless, since YouTube, Huffington Post, and sport outlets all have the video of the handball playing endlessly on the internet, it's clear that proof of the foul exists. Would instant replay serve the game? As one who has tired of the fits and starts added to already fitful NFL games with the replays, I'd hate to see the flow of any soccer matches fall prey to instant replay technology. Considering how rarely the issue of extremely questionable play comes up, it seems an unnecessary addition to the game. FIFA might consider adding two end zone officials to watch specifically for fouls in the box that are difficult to see from behind and by ARs on the opposite side of the play when looking through a sea of legs, bodies, and goal posts. 

But truly I'm more in favor of just letting the controversy flare up, get its day in the light of public opinion and then tuck away in the history books for another two or three years until a new controversial goal snaps everything back into focus. I love watching Judge Judy. She's my guilty pleasure while I fold laundry. If I've learned anything, I've learned that occasionally the law ends up being unfair. The aggrieved party can't prove their case and so the clearly smirking and guilty thug ends up getting away with it. It hurts to lose when you know you should win, but then you move on and let it all go because there are new opportunities on the horizon that have much better outcomes.

I loved reading the Irish Herald's editorial about the event because of all the papers talking about this incident this was the one who had the most right to be angry. Yet the editor took the opportunity to point out some hard truths. "Why were we in the position where a disputed goal put us out of the World Cup?   It is not a popular thing to say in the current climate, but shouldn't we have scored the second goal to ensure our qualification? If we had done that there wouldn't be a word about Thierry Henry this morning." Exactly! How often do we tell our kids that they can't blame the weather, the field conditions, the dirty play of the opposing team, or the officiating for losing a game? Instant replay will never provide strong play and the will to win. Fairness will never be achieved 100 percent. So we have to muddle through and not try to achieve some perfect environment for play. Let soccer be what it is – a somewhat flawed arena in which we project our nationalism, our bravado, and our hopes.
 

Battery Park

Susan Boyd

The lead stories on Monday's Today show were, in order, Hurricane Ida, the Fort Hood shootings, and a female soccer player accused of rough play. The fact that in the midst of wars, economic concerns, and health reform, the manner of play in a soccer game would warrant the number three lead story on a national news show instantly piqued my interest.

For those of you unaware of this story here's a short recap. Last week BYU hosted New Mexico's Lobos women's team for a game. One Lobos player overstepped the boundaries of civilized play. Her behavior included kicking a ball full force right in the face of a downed player, punching another player in the back with her fist, and most horrifyingly yanking a player's pony tail so violently that her neck arched back and she collapsed on the ground. Did she ever get a card or at minimum a whistle? She was admonished just once with a yellow over the ball in the face. Otherwise all her actions went unnoticed and unpenalized. When the video of her actions hit YouTube and the national news, her coach suspended her from the team for an unspecified time and many in the public clamored for her suspension from the university. The player in question apologized for her behavior by stating that, "I let my emotions get the best of me in a heated situation." She knew she had chosen to behave badly.

We read stories like this all the time, and worse we personally witness violence in sports. For example, this fall I witnessed a player long after play had stopped stomp on a downed defender's head opening a wound that required five stitches. He was sent off with a red. French player and three-time FIFA World Player of the Year Zinedine Zidane head butted two players in 2000 and 2006 respectively. He also was sent off with a red. Just recently a Rhode Island high school girls' soccer championship game turned into a brawl between the teams. The game was suspended. A club player last year was sucker punched as he walked off the field. The victim ended up in a coma with severe head injuries. Although no card was issued because the game was over. 

Assault and battery are legally defined as "the intentional and unjustified use of force upon the person of another, however slight, or the intentional doing of a wanton or grossly negligent act causing personal injury to another." Assault is also defined as "the threat of violence while battery is the actual act of violence resulting in injury" (Judicial Definitions, State of Massachusetts).   We excuse battery in the course of a sporting event because we accept it as a justifiable offshoot of the aggressive nature of the competition. In reality it's not. Sports have rules that carefully and constructively lay out the acceptable limits of behavior. Most sports don't tolerate excessive aggression or contact between players, and that is certainly true of soccer. Yet players consistently get away with extremely unacceptable violent behavior with little more than a card and possibly a one or two game suspension. Referees have limited ability to enforce anything further than sending a player off. The real police need to be coaches and the governing agencies of the sport. When a player is unnecessarily violent – and those instances should be clear to all who witness them – then a coach needs to exercise swift and serious consequences.

A case in point was a recent event between the University of Oregon and Boise State University football players LeGarrette Blount and Byron Hout respectively. Hout taunted Blount after the U of O lost to BSU and then tapped his shoulder in a mildly aggressive way. Blount retaliated by punching Hout and momentarily knocking him out. The U of O coach and AD both responded within hours of the event with a suspension of Blount from the football team. Blount's behavior was no more dangerous than that of the player who stomped on the defender's head in a soccer game. And at least Blount was directly provoked by Hout. But in the case of the soccer player only a red card was issued, he served a one game suspension, and was back to playing soccer without any further recourse. That's not right. While the letter of the law was followed, the spirit was certainly neglected. Players need to be held as accountable for their on-field actions as they are for their off-field actions. The same weekend as the head stomping incident, a student was suspended from school for kicking another student in the face during the course of a verbal argument. The injury required some stitches and no hospitalization. So it was on a similar level as the injury the soccer player administered. The only difference was that one injury occurred during the course of a verbal confrontation and the other occurred during the course of a sport competition. Both were unacceptable and excessive demonstrations of violence and both were preventable had the aggressor made the choice not to follow through with harm.

That is the key point. Any contact sport will have violent moments. It comes as a matter of course from heavy, moving objects flying about. But when the violence comes from an action outside the boundaries of play, then it is a choice made by a player. I'm talking about intentional infliction of injury by one player upon another and not those injuries which might be intentional, but come about due to reckless play such as tripping or sliding cleats up. Intentional injury, for this argument, comes when an aggressor has time to consider his or her actions and then decides to proceed.

The video of the Lobos player showed that all of her actions were a matter of choice and didn't arise from the flow of the game. For that reason and no others, she needs to be held accountable. Luckily nothing she did resulted in injury, but it could have. She was a poor representative of her team and played with poor sportsmanship not to mention the potential for injury. Better she got caught now rather than later with more serious results. Coaches need to be willing to address those actions and to let it be known that they won't be tolerated. Should injury occur they need to institute serious and extended consequences. We can't eliminate violence on the field, but we can certainly make sure that it is dealt with swiftly and seriously.  Knowing how gravely a coach will react might give a player extra pause in that moment he or she considers an attack. At least it will erase the false protection of the pitch as a place with different societal rules.
 

Seasonal Planning

Sam Snow

Good Games Can Be Planned. Great Games Just Happen.

The three main phases of seasonal planning are preseason, season and postseason. The youth soccer coach must also take into account other activities in which the player is engaged. These include school and extracurricular functions, other sports, the US Youth Soccer Olympic Development Program, family and social functions, religious events, Youth Soccer Month, etc. These activities will influence the player's soccer experience in one fashion or another.

The Game is the Best Teacher – MAYBE

The game does indeed teach players by showing them their strengths and weaknesses. However, too many matches in the player's schedule becomes a hindrance to development. You must strike the right balance between the number of matches played per season, the number of training sessions per season and time off.

As a coach, you need to have a schedule for the season. A seasonal plan should begin at the end. So devise your schedule from the last possible event the team could attend in that soccer year. For the U-8 team, this is likely an end of the year jamboree or soccer festival, or perhaps just the last play day on the schedule. For the U-18 team the last event could be the finals of the US Youth Soccer National Championships. Whatever the last event is plan from there back to the beginning of the season. In this way you can now see the scope of the steps you will need to take to develop the players to culminate at the final seasonal event.  Take into account match days, training days, regeneration training days, specialty training, holidays, major school events (final exams for example), planned days off and tournaments. The schedule must also reflect the rhythm[1] of training. Following are one month schedule samples that could apply to childhood, pubescent and adolescent teams.

Planned time off is vitally important to avoid over-scheduling and the fallout of overuse injuries and mental burnout. Both the players and the coaches need time off to 'recharge the batteries' and come back to soccer reinvigorated; it's possible to have too much of a good thing.
Club and high school coaches need to work together for the sake of the players on dovetailing their seasons. A week or two off between seasons for the year-round players will avoid burnout. After a little rest and relaxation you will get back a player fully charged and ready to give 100 percent. If this formula is not followed then players giving a fraction of their full potential will become the norm.

Clubs and coaches must plan a reasonable soccer year calendar for each age group. Certainly the U-6 schedule should not have the same intensity, duration and frequency of activity as the U-16 schedule. Beware of the too much too soon syndrome[2]. A symptom of the syndrome is the more is better mentality[3]. For positive player development that will last for decades, a balanced approach must be taken to the soccer calendar.  The list below covers the areas within the planning concept for which you are responsible in preparing a team to compete. All four components of soccer - fitness, psychology, tactics and technique - are incorporated into these areas and some will overlap from one area to the next.

¤ 
Periodization
          o   Peak at championship time
¤ Short-term and long-term development goals
¤ Rhythm of training [4]
¤ Over-training or under-training
¤ Tournaments – must be few and far between; you need to be very selective about when your team participates in a tournament and why
¤ Burnout – mental and physical
¤ Overuse  and chronic injuries

There are two principles of learning in physical education that you should consider in the seasonal plan for skill improvement. Your plan for training sessions each month should reflect these principles:

Principle of Distributed Practice -
In general short periods of intense practice will result in more learning than longer, massed practice sessions.

Principle of Variable Practice -
Block practice aids performance while variable practice aids in learning. Variable practice causes an increase in attention.
 
Plan your practice and practice your plan.


[1] A training session should go from low to medium to high to medium to high to low in the physical exertion demanded from the players – once exhausted little learning occurs.
[2] The misguided notion that if beginning soccer at age 5 is good then 3 or 4 is a head start. The same flawed logic often is used in beginning try-outs too soon.
[3] The misapplied idea to increase training from one hour to two or double the number of matches from fifty to one hundred.
[4] The rhythm of a season should have a balance to the level of competition – peaking with the most challenging matches at season's end.