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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.

 

Heading

Sam Snow

Recently I had a club director ask for information on the do's and don'ts of heading in the Under-6 and Under-8 age groups. In order to help educate the members of his club he wanted to know the latest thoughts on the subject. These sorts of questions, whether they are on a technical topic such as this one or a tactical question, come up now and then. The tendency from either a coach in a club or parents of players on a team is to want to teach advanced skills or tactics to young players. The logic usually is that well it's part of the game and they will need to learn it. True…but not today.
 
By this approach the logic could be extended to say that since kids will someday be driving a car then you should have your 6-year-old practice driving back and forth in the driveway. This flies in the face of common sense. So to the question of teaching heading to Under-6 and Under-8 players - put simply … DON'T!
 
Soccer players do indeed need to learn how to head the ball. It is an important and unique skill in the game. To execute the skill correctly though requires some developed athleticism and ability to read the flight of the ball in the air. US Youth Soccer recommends that heading be introduced at the earliest in the Uner-10 age group.  Young children have great difficulty tracking moving objects, especially if they are in the air.  Most will duck or throw hands in front of the face if the ball comes toward the head.  Children younger than 10 are very reactionary in their movement behavior.  Anticipating where the ball might be played is a skill that has not yet developed.  This ability does not really develop until age nine or 10.  Prior to age nine visual tracking acuity is not fully developed.  Players have difficulty accurately tracking long kicks or the ball off of the ground.  Beginning at approximately age 10, one's visual tracking acuity achieves an adult pattern.  Even then it will take years to reach a point of being able to precisely determine the height, pace, curve and spin of a ball in the air.  How many high school players mistime headers?  There is no need to be in a rush to teach heading skill to children.  Just like geometry in school they get to it in time.
 
Heading the ball is a difficult skill to learn. When should players start? Introduce heading in the Under-10 age group. Teach heading to score and to clear in the Under-12 age group both standing and jumping. Teach heading to pass, backwards heading (flicks) and diving headers in the Under-14 age group. These age groups recommendations are the average, middle of the bell-curve so to speak. A few players may start some of these techniques earlier, especially if they have older siblings playing. Others will start latter, as their confidence grows.
 
Players who can make exact passes with the head, who can save dangerous situations at their own goal by heading the ball away and who can make use of chances at the opponent's goal by means of lightning quick headers are indispensable to their team. The ball can be headed from a standing position, on the run or by jumping up to the ball with one or both legs; the ball can be headed forwards, i.e. in the direction the player is facing, to the side and even behind.
 
Early experiences can be painful if careful progression in building up confidence is not applied. When introducing the technique of heading the ball for the first time, I suggest you start with a Nerf type soccer ball or an underinflated volleyball. Gradually work your way up to a fully inflated soccer ball. Begin with juggling with the head so that the player controls the pace, height, frequency of repetition, movement, etc.   Next go to head juggling with a partner. A good group game for heading is Toss-Head-Catch. In this activity the ball is being served from the hands, so the force is less than a crossed ball and is more accurate. The increased accuracy will allow for more repetitions of correct headers.
 
The whole body is used to head the ball. The movement begins with the legs, the movement of the stomach muscles throws the trunk and upper body forward and the head, from the neck upwards, follows through quickly. The position of the forehead to the ball determines its flight path.
 
Here are the key coaching points for the basic header:
 
Head: chin tucked in, neck stiff, never close the eyes. It is important to watch the flight of the ball until the moment of impact.
 
Upper body: brought back early into the curved position – and then snapped forward. Contact is made with the ball when the body is perpendicular to the ground.
 
Legs: bent at the knees to support the forward thrust.
 
Area of contact: middle of the forehead, sometimes the side of the forehead, never the temples or the top of the head.
 
Among young players there is a physical barrier to overcome when talking about heading and that is simply fear. The earliest and most elementary lesson about heading is never let the ball hit you. Go out and meet it, and make contact with the front part of the forehead where the skull is the thickest. You must attack the ball! You hit it, not the other way around.  The main surface of contact is of course the forehead. The ball must be struck, not cushioned. The neck and back muscles should be rigid to generate power. The part played by the eyes is important! Although it is likely that the reflex blinking action causes the eyes to be closed at the moment when the ball is struck by the forehead, players should be encouraged to watch the ball right onto the forehead; only by doing so can a player time the actual heading movement accurately. There need be no fear of danger to the eyes since they are well protected by the heavy bone structure immediately above them.
 
There is no better feeling in soccer than beating an opponent in the air to plant a header in the net. Once you have done it, there is a hunger to do it again. It is a spectacular way of scoring goals, or come to that of stopping them. Defensively it is a great thrill in consistently clearing the ball in the air, beating opposing forwards and establishing control. The young player who fails to add heading to his or her armory of skills will never go far in the game.
 

Turning Over a New Leaf

Susan Boyd

Outside my windows a mountain of leaves cascades down on our lawn and deck. Every year we face the same dilemma: How to get the ridiculous number of leaves raked out to the street for leaf pick-up while still participating in the state championship run. I don't exaggerate when I say that our house dwells in a maelstrom of leaves. We have fifteen deciduous trees directly on our property and live downwind from another fifty trees. While I celebrate the glory that autumn brings in brilliant golds, yellows, reds, and oranges, I am loathe to figure out how to manage them once they depart their limbs and descend in a mass to our lawn.   Raking and blowing takes up hours of time which we never seem to have because the boys, the worker bees, are still at practice or at games.

It's a nice to dilemma to have trying to balance a high school championship season with the leaf blowing season. But nice or not it still has to be resolved. We have resorted to raking at 10 p.m. on a Sunday night or trying to do a little each day for a week hoping that our smaller piles won't disintegrate in a wind storm before we can coerce them into larger piles. While people who know our home wax poetic about the beauty of living in the woods, we have grown to view fall colors as a curse. We would never pay to travel to Vermont to see what we regard as "the enemy." So as people drive by the house oohing and ahhing over our glorious ceiling and carpet of leaves, we are outside exercising our freedom of speech in colorful ways.

Now we are one leaf raker/blower short since Bryce is away at college. And Robbie, who even said he was looking forward to raking, has proven to be a no-show since his school keeps moving along in their journey to the state championship. With our deck now literally calf high in oak leaves, I have made a bold decision. I had a landscape service give me a quote on doing all the raking of the leaves this year. And shocker – they weren't really all that expensive. Now I wonder why I spent all those years with numb fingers from hours of maneuvering the blower around the lawn. Why did I attempt to rake swaths of leaves to the curbside only to find them back on my lawn the next morning due to a cruel northwest wind? Why did I ruin a perfectly good comforter collecting and dragging leaves from the back of the house because I couldn't find the plastic tarp we always used? I can't believe I probably could have had the entire lawn raked for the cost of a comforter! I won't make that mistake again.

So now I can concentrate on cheering for Robbie and his team. Tonight is the last game ever for Robbie at his home field, so it will be a bittersweet evening. Having sat on the bleachers for six years now, I am already starting to miss all that those games represented. Just like autumn moves from brilliant glory to winter's grey, so too does soccer in the Midwest. These wonderful, crisp evenings and afternoons sitting on the sidelines soaking up friendships and competition will now give way to smelly, claustrophobic indoor soccer. Of course those of you in the south or California are probably looking forward to winter soccer, so I admit I'm writing from a Midwest and Northeast bias.   For those of us in states with four distinct seasons, winter spells a dark, smaller game on surfaces that often only approximate grass because they are green. 

My goalkeeper son loved indoor soccer because he got a good workout. Instead of touching the ball two to six times in a game, he would have to make a save every few seconds. He also got to occasionally dribble the ball down and take a shot. So by his thinking indoor soccer rocked. But Robbie usually ends up with rug burns, stress injuries to his joints, and aggressive attacks. Since indoor soccer ends up being a mixed bag of competition level, Robbie's team ends up playing adult teams many of which have older players with too much testosterone and too little skill. Since the indoor game runs on speed with only a handful of players on the field, everyone but the goalkeeper rotates through every two minutes or so. With balls and players bouncing off the walls, the game has an entirely different sound. Robbie's indoor league has now switched to a straight forty minute game without a half-time so that the facility can fit in more games in an evening. Oh, I should also mention that many of the games are after 10 p.m. at night, which used to be my prime leaf-raking time.

I'll miss high school soccer. I'll miss the tradition that high school sports foster.  I'll miss the victories cheered on by scores of the team's peers. I'll miss the alumni who come to share the experience and relive their own pasts. I'll miss teachers and administrators who attend regularly to support the players. I'll miss the camaraderie that parents share. I'll miss witnessing the brotherhood (or sisterhood) the team develops over the course of the ten week season. I'll miss everything which created the memories I'll hold for years to come. High school sports provide a special experience for all involved. For most players, high school will be the final opportunity to be a player rather than a fan contributing to the school's history. Winning a state championship is the ultimate goal, but sharing in the experience of playing with friends from school for the pride of the school remains the real reason to play high school soccer.

So this year I'm savoring these final high school games. Since it is Robbie's final year, it makes the prospect of indoor soccer even less appealing. There are only two pluses I cling to: one – Robbie will play college soccer and two – someone else is raking my leaves from now on!
 

That's My Team

Susan Boyd

With the World Series under way I find myself watching two teams playing that I had little interest in except that the Brewers played against the Phillies in the playoffs. Yet as the teams dwindled to these two, baseball fans found themselves developing a team alliance usually along Division lines AL vs. NL. We can't help but attach a team identity to our viewing.

The interesting thing about teams is that they are easily identifiable. Jerseys, team colors, mascots, and stadium names help us figure out which team someone is supporting. We even attribute certain traits to team fans: Packer fans are working class and love beer and cheese; Yankee fans are all De Niro wannabes; Laker fans epitomize "cool," wear sun glasses indoors, and one is actually De Niro. Dressing in team gear gives us an instant connection. We can be half-way around the world and someone wearing a Seahawks jersey becomes our new best friend.  We assume we speak the same language both literally and figuratively. Surrounding ourselves with like-minded individuals who share our goals, our values, our triumphs, and our disappointments makes us comfortable.

This is exactly why we extend our inclination for team membership to the rest of our lives. Unfortunately it gets messier to identify whose team people are on without the simple parameters that sports teams provide. In high school there were classifications like the jocks, the geeks, the brains, the homecoming queens, and the loners.  However such narrow classifications didn't allow for the jock with a 3.8 grade point or the science geek who was also a homecoming queen. Outside of the ivy covered walls life gets even more complicated. We want stereotypes to be true because they allow for a simpler way to approach people and to compartmentalize our lives, but unfortunately people are defined by far too many attributes to pigeon-hole anyone.

When I was in graduate school I was in a study group for my linguistics class. The course was really rough and so we would often get very silly during study group just to keep our sanity. After the semester was nearly over some occasion arose where I mentioned my husband, the doctor. The room became silent. "You're a doctor's wife? But you don't act like a doctor's wife! You're funny." I was curious as to what a doctor's wife was supposed to be like and I was told that first off I shouldn't be in graduate school, I should be wearing designer clothes, I should belong to Junior League, and I should be haughty. Since my mother-in-law is also a doctor's wife and doesn't fit any of those criteria either I was surprised that people still thought that way about my doctor's wife sisterhood. Of course I have also seen a car with the license plate MRS MD which only helps perpetuate the stereotype.

Expectations about team affiliation in life can get ugly. People make assumptions based on factors such as race, religion, gender, social class, and geography. When those assumptions are wrong it's either embarrassing or confrontational.  And we've all made them. When I was directing the talent show at my daughter's high school I walked into study hall and asked for some strong boys to help me move some set pieces. Three girls jumped up and said, "What's wrong with strong girls?" OOOOH that hurt! I even wrote a biography of Betty Friedan. But I couldn't avoid my own stereotype of who belonged on the team of strong people.

We all know the uglier examples of stereotyping and the effects. What really spurred me to ruminate on this topic were Democratic Congressman John Murtha's comments that his district in Western Pennsylvania wouldn't vote for Obama because he was black. Apparently the Democratic Party team's agenda isn't as significant as the race team's agenda in Murtha's eyes. If I were a voter in his district I'd be pretty offended whether or not I was voting for Obama. Murtha had assumed that white, older, working class voters wouldn't be able to get past racial issues. If someone didn't vote for Obama that non-support was chalked up to race when in fact it could have been, gasp, on the issues. Expecting white voters not to support Obama is like expecting black voters to all vote for Obama or women voters to vote for McCain because his running mate is a woman. The teams of blacks, whites, women, and men are far too complex to be reduced to a single issue. Unlike the American League wanting to beat the National League, teams in life have multiple goals and cross affiliations.

So even when you're at an intense soccer game, remember that all the people wearing your team colors have lots of other teams they belong to in life. Just because they join with you in wanting to trounce the opposition on the pitch, it doesn't mean they feel the same way about the environment, politics, education, or any other issue in life. And don't assume anyone on the other side of the stands is your enemy. You may find out they belong to your team on lots of things. They just have the wrong jersey on.
 

Indoor Soccer

Sam Snow

Coach Snow,

In our community, we are having friendly debates/discussions on the pros and cons of playing indoor soccer and more specifically using the walls or not. This has been a topic for discussion in many of the areas I have been in my coaching career.  I was hoping you could help me out with this topic by locating a previously written article(s) about the topic or have one of the higher ups use this topic in one of their blogs.
 
Having US Youth make a statement or share their opinions helps out a lot. I visit the US Youth Soccer website daily to read up on articles of interest and curiosity and have added the links to your blog site on ours.

Thank you for all that you do!
 
Coach Jeff Ginn
-------------------------
 
Hi Jeff,
 
This seems like a healthy debate for a club to have.  The general consensus of the state Technical Directors is that for development purposes the futsal version is preferred over the indoor soccer version played inside a hockey rink using the walls.  Yet if no other soccer playing option is available in some climates during inclement weather then indoor soccer using the walls is better than not being able to play at all, perhaps for several months in some locales. 
Below is the section on indoor soccer from the Player Development Model being written by US Youth Soccer.  The full document will be made public at the 2009 US Youth Soccer adidas Workshop in San Jose next March.  The portion reprinted below is from the first draft, so revisions may or may not be made.

One of the beauties of soccer is that the game can be played anywhere the ball can roll.  Indeed playing in a variety of conditions helps to develop more well-rounded players.  So a mix of outdoor and indoor soccer along with some variety in the type of playing surface, size of the field and type of ball used will have a positive impact on ball skills and clever play.
 
Soccer on the beach is not only great fun but certainly impacts the players' skills and physical fitness.  Players are more likely here to experiment with more acrobatic skills too.
 
At times the weather conditions dictate that soccer go indoors for some time.  Coaches must take this fact into consideration in the curriculum for player development for the club.  You could play indoor soccer inside a hockey rink type playing area using the boards or Futsal.  Some indoor facilities are large enough that fields are set up and may allow even up to 11-a-side matches.  All of these options keep players active in the game.  The same basic skills, tactics and knowledge of the game as the 11 vs. 11 outdoor game occur indoors.  Yet Futsal may offer the best compliment to player development.  One of the benefits of this version of soccer is that it can be played indoors or outside, on a dedicated Futsal court or tennis court or basketball court, so the options of where to play are better.  Young players exposed to playing Futsal show a greater comfort on the ball along with more intelligent movement off the ball.
 
The priority in Futsal is to motivate players in an environment that is conducive to learning.  The more pleasure kids derive from their participation, the more they wish to play and practice on their own.  While their instinct to play is natural, their affection and appreciation for soccer must be cultivated in a soccer rich environment.  Futsal is the foundation to such goals because it: [i]
Allows players to frequently touch the one "toy" on the field, namely, the ball.  In a statistical study comparing Futsal to indoor arena soccer with walls, players touch the ball 210% more often.
Presents many opportunities to score goals and score goals often.  With limited space, an out of bounds and constant opponent pressure, improved ball skills are required.
Encourages regaining possession of the ball as a productive, fun and rewarding part of the game {defending}.
Maximizes active participation and minimizes inactivity and boredom.  Action is continuous so players are forced to keep on playing instead of stopping and watching.
Provides a well organized playing environment with improvised fields.  Without a wall as a crutch, players must make supporting runs when their teammates have the ball.
Reflects the appropriate role of the coach as a Facilitator.  With all the basic options of the outdoor game in non-stop action mode, players' understanding of the game is enhanced.
Players enjoy the challenge of playing a fast-paced-fun-skill-oriented game that tests their abilities.  Allows the game to be the teacher!
 
 


[i] United States Futsal Federation