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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.

 

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.

 

Something Lost

Susan Boyd

Winning isn't everything which is easy to say, but not easy to live by unless you're under the age of ten. Measuring one's accomplishments by a team's success doesn't really set in until kids are older.  As youngsters they are enough "me" focused with a touch of self-doubt to need personal praise and affirmation.   They can understand and appreciate a team win, but it isn't the most important part of playing. I was watching a soccer game of six year olds when one team scored on the other. As the kids lined up for the kickoff, a parent shouted encouragingly, "You'll get it bac" prompting a player to pipe up, "We already got it back. We're kicking." Duh mom and dad!   Someday hearing, "you'll get it back" will be very important and supportive. That day, it just stated the obvious.

My grandkids like to win as much as the next player especially if they are playing a board game against one another. But whenever I talk to them about their sports I never hear if they won or lost. Instead, I am treated to a blow by blow description of some snippet from their match where they felt they had achieved something extraordinary. Their personal victory over whatever roadblocks existed during play carry far more weight in their memories than wins or losses. Last week Archer announced on the phone that he had done "the biggest kick ever. It went past all the players. It almost went out of the field, but it didn't." I have no idea if the kick resulted in a goal. What mattered was the power of his kick. I expressed supreme praise for having such a strong leg. And when I asked if the team had won he replied, "I love you. Bye."

Don't get me wrong . . . I'm all for winning. Competition leads to life lessons as important as courtesy and safety. What I dread are the by-products of competition that spell the end of innocence. Kids who played together for three years suddenly find themselves split into separate teams based on skill. For those who don't make the "A" team there's the natural feelings of failure and the pain of seeing a group of your friends move on without you. Parents can put whatever spin on the results as they want, but kids still understand what's happening. Clubs need to be encouraged to help players through these transitions. I've witnessed and heard of horrible stories when children first enter the world of select soccer.   At age nine all of Robbie's team except two players were invited to play up a year. We were told we were moving as a team, so it was shock to learn that two kids were "disinvited." All of us felt betrayed. I still remember the anguish in the voice of one mother. It was totally unnecessary. Eventually those players would have self-selected to opt out of soccer and winning didn't really matter at that age. Parents and coaches need to be sensitive to the major upheaval this transition imposes on families. It's not just missing out on a particular team. It can change the social group for children and define them among their peers.

We should appreciate and extend the years when winning takes a back seat to personal achievement. The kids don't have that judgmental attitude towards one another. Every action earns high fives, whether a goal or an own goal. The players have that wonderful raw enthusiasm where nothing can go wrong, except occasional bumps and bruises. Games are a jumble of activity punctuated with outbursts of glee. Somewhere in the midst of this joyous chaos a few gems of learning are picked up. I know that eventually the entire rhythm of the games will shift to winning. The players will express disappointment in one another's efforts and learn to lay blame. I'm not sure how or why this shift occurs, but it does. Some of it may be learned on the ride home from games where we parents point out that Johnny didn't pass very well or Mary is a ball hog. And some of it just grows from the competitive need to win where one mistake can spell the difference between winning and losing.

I often miss the pleasure of just laughing on the sidelines. Once winning becomes important that drive spills over to the spectators. A 16 year old going to kick the ball and whiffing evokes disappointing grunts while a six year old doing the same thing elicits giggles. Own goals aren't funny when they occur in state league play, but are hilarious in recreational soccer especially when followed by leaps of joy from the striker and her teammates, who only understand that a goal is a good thing. When winning gets involved, watching a game can become an exercise in self-control rather than unbridled engagement. I know too well the tension that winning brings to a competition. During last fall's state tournament quarterfinals Robbie's high school team fought to a 0-0 tie in regulation finally scoring a golden goal in overtime. All the restrained tension spilled out in body shakes and tears. That would never happen while watching Archer kick the biggest kick ever. So I'm grateful for those years of just enjoying the moment without any stake in the outcome.  And when they look back, the kids will be grateful too.
 

Argentine Football Association (AFA)

Sam Snow

Well I continued my visit in Argentina with a tour and meeting with the staff at Estudiantes. The facility is impressive with a dozen fields, swimming, tennis, and golf, indoor facilities with locker rooms and dorms and administrative offices. The discussion with the staff included the possibility of US Youth Soccer Olympic Development Program players and coaches being able to stay and work with Estudiantes for an extended period. I will let you know how this possibility works out in a future blog.
 
The next day, we were taken on a private tour of the Boca Juniors facilities and we were allowed to observe the second team and youth teams in training. In the afternoon we toured the training facilities of the Argentine Football Association (AFA). We were guided on the tour by Mr. Ruben Moschella. The facilities include eight first class fields, one beach soccer field, dorms, cafeteria, exercise rooms, health centers, Futsal indoor center and offices. While in the building reserved for the full national team we meet the son-in-law of Diego Maradona, head coach of the Men's National Team. He handles all of the administration for Coach Maradona's work with AFA. We had to quickly leave that building as Diego was on his way to the facility and does not like to have anyone there when he is in the building. It was interesting watching him drive onto the complex and up to the building at 60 miles per hour; I think he believes his is a Formula 1 driver. Even though we had to leave one building on the complex we continued our tour. We ended in the main cafeteria and met there with Mr. Hector Elizondo. He refereed the first and last match at the 2006 World Cup and is now in charge of the instruction of FIFA referees in CONMEBOL and CONCACAF. By trade he is a special physical education professor at a university. He was very interested in our TOPSoccer brochure printed in Spanish. Overall the tour was enjoyable and we made good connections with AFA personnel.
 
On the next to last day of my stay in Buenos Aires I was able to meet with Juan Grondona, the first vice president of FIFA and the president of the AFA. We discussed the possibility of an exchange between AFA and US Youth Soccer. The door was opened by Mr. Grondona for coaches and referees from AFA to visit us to pass along their information on the education of referees and coaches and for us to share with them our methods. We will also look into the possibility of American coaches attending education sessions with AFA at their training center. Again I will let you know in a future blog on how this possibility develops.
 
This was a productive trip for US Youth Soccer and our members. We will grow this soccer relationship in Argentina. I urge all of you involved in any way with the beautiful game to explore the world as everywhere you go soccer is part of the culture.