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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.

 

Ranking youth players is often more than a number

Sam Snow

Recently an online registration company announced it will begin to rank U9 to U11 teams. Right up front here’s my take on that – bad move! Fortunately the soccer public responded immediately and loudly against such a move. From our Men’s National Team head coach to Soccer America magazine to state and club coaches the pushback was strongly against the ranking of such young teams.
 
I am sure though that many adults will jump at the chance to have their U12 and younger teams ranked. Why? Bragging rights and revenue streams. Those are the only two reasons that otherwise reasonable adults would sell out the kids. Not to mention stalling the growth of the game in the USA.
 
The players will have been sold out since they will be robbed of the incentive to improve. After all, why have a growth mindset and a strong work ethic when you’ve been told you’re number 1 in the nation at the tender age of ten. Good soccer coaches, administrators, moms and dads know that to help young players improve their skills you praise their effort not the outcome. [Read the book Mindset by Dr. Carol Dweck for more information on the growth mindset.]
 
Players are already disrupted in their development continuum by jumping from club to club. Rankings at such young ages will exacerbate the problem. This outcome will happen when soccer club customers (parents) quickly change from club A to club B as soon as club B goes up in the rankings with their U9 to U1_ teams. Buyer beware! Choosing the right soccer club for young players (consumers) is more complicated than picking your new refrigerator. Yet many parents will research the new fridge more thoroughly than the club; even though the development of a young soccer player is far more complex than the features on a refrigerator.
 
The aspect of the decision to offer national rankings for U9 to U11 teams being about money is obvious. The registration company will only rank teams in the events with which the company is affiliated; i.e., creation of a revenue stream.
 
A club that buys into ranking systems is also looking for a deeper revenue stream. They hope that by achieving a high ranking they’ll attract more players (consumers) along with their parents (customers). Let’s be clear, rankings have nothing to do with player development.
 
Rankings themselves are dubious at best. The only ranking that can be valid is one in a league with head-to-head competition. Even the FIFA rankings of national teams are a guessing game. No national team coach thinks the world rankings are absolute. I spent six years on the NCAA Men’s Soccer Committee. At the end of the college soccer season we had to rank teams to sort out the post season bids for the NCAA national championships. We considered head-to-head competition, common opponents and strength of schedule. We had three different mathematical formulas to help with those evaluations. We had six to eight hour long conference calls to sort it all out. Ranking college teams who hadn’t played each other wasn’t easy. And this was evaluating teams with adult players on them, not children’s teams.
 
In short, ranking preteen teams is not only a fruitless effort; it can be one that hinders the healthy growth of players and clubs. Just say NO to rankings!
 
 
What is your opinion on rankings? Are 9-year-olds too young? What about 13-year-olds? We want to hear from you, so let us know what your feelings are about ranking youth players by commenting on this article.
 

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Yes Virginia, There Is a Soccer Clause

Susan Boyd

Increasingly soccer clubs are taking a more professionally legal approach to signing players to teams.  They do this to A) insure they will be paid all the fees families owe to them and B) to dissuade players from club hopping every year.  It’s probably a great idea for them, but could be problematic for members.  It’s important that parents know what they are agreeing to when they sign up their child after tryouts.  Just like a car loan or a credit card, parents need to be sure there are no hidden fees or surprise expenses for which they would be liable under the terms of the "contract" the club asks them to sign and that they aren’t giving up their ability to negotiate or to leave if warranted.  We parents need to educate ourselves on what rules exist under our state soccer associations and what are our rights.
 
Club can’t survive without great coaching and a strong development program, both of which require continuous and stable funding.  Since for the most part soccer is an optional diversion and not a necessary expense, parents will often decide to forgo the ongoing costs during tougher economic times.  Additionally our sons and daughters can be fickle especially at the youngest ages.  Their participation doesn’t spring from a passion for the game, but instead from outside factors such as friends, social standing, and achievement.  When those things change then their attitude to continuing in the sport changes. 
 
Since soccer training is a service rather than a commodity, clubs can’t recoup their losses by reselling a returned product.  When parents stop paying, the money is lost unless clubs get paid up front or have a tight contract obligating a family to pay whether or not their child continues in the sport.  Therefore, many clubs are requiring credit cards for all payments, even payment plans, because they then have arbitration through their bank to insure that the club continues its funding. 
 
When I was my sons’ soccer club administrator, we had to argue several cases a year to the banks which ultimately supported us in our actions citing that we were providing a service rather than a tangible product.  So parents need to be aware that they may be liable for all expenses no matter what situation arises – even injury.  In fact many of the contracts that clubs request parents to sign clearly outline all the circumstances in which the families will continue to be obligated for all expenses:  injury, job transfers or losses, lack of interest, and/or a move.  Be sure that you completely understand what you are signing and what your rights are should you want to appeal.
              
Many state soccer associations carefully protect clubs financially.  For instance, no player can be released legally from a club to play with another club until all fees have been paid.  And no other club can sign a player who still has a financial obligation to a previous club, even if the season is over.  These rules protect clubs not only from monetary losses, but discourage the threats parents will often make that they will pull their child from a team if certain conditions aren’t met.  The club can’t be held hostage.  The parent can absolutely remove their child any time they want, but they must pay all fees before they can get a release to play on another team.  Even if fully paid up, families may not get a release from a club and will have to wait until the next scheduled state tryout date before being able to jump ship.  Without a release, no other club can sign their child.  Many parents may be under the false impression that all they have to do is leave, but state soccer associations protect clubs from such manipulation and threat.  So be sure you educate yourself on the regulations from your state’s governing association to insure you don’t get an unpleasant surprise.
              
On the reverse side, clubs can be quite sneaky about what the real expenses of being on team include.  It gets more difficult the more advanced your player becomes.  Elite travel teams don’t want to scare off potential players from joining, but they also don’t want to have those players asking for scholarships because the expense of the team is too much to handle.  So clubs will have a fee for playing on the team which will include practice facility use, coaching, a certain number of practices a week, and possibly even tournament fees. 
 
But parents have to enquire about the hidden or possibly surprising costs.  The biggest surprise will often be the cost of indoor soccer.  When the fall season is over, the coach will begin to talk about the indoor league the team will join and indoor practices.  These activities are considered "voluntary" so aren’t included in the original contract, but there is often an unsaid expectation that if we want our children to remain on a team we’re expected to participate.  Three or four months of indoor soccer can be as expensive as eight months of regular soccer.  Facilities are few and far between, which makes for high demand and pushes up their costs for rental.   Tournament fees may be included in the contract, but parents can find themselves obligated to pay the expenses for coaches to travel and stay at the tournaments.  Clubs will argue that these costs are unknown at the time of tryouts and are therefore calculated after the fact. 
 
You will want to check to find out if basic uniform costs are included in your fees or are an added expense.  One thing that I’ve learned is that manufacturers rarely keep a certain style in stock for longer than three years, so you might want to find out where in that style cycle you are when joining the club.  If your first year at the club is the last year for the uniform style, you’ll have the expense of buying uniforms for two years if you stay at the club (and if you leave you’ll obviously have the expense of the new club’s uniforms).  So you need to budget for those costs.  Also consider where the travel tournaments will be held.  Can you drive?  Will you need to fly?  What types of hotels does the club use?  If you have a travel miles membership with a certain airline and/or hotel chain, you’ll want to find out if you are free to book your travel and rooms.  Consider also that group reservations will usually be cheaper than regular airfare/hotel, so you may want to figure out if the savings justify the lost mileage.  Finally know what your rights are when there are expenses outside of the contract that you were not expecting and can’t afford.  Clubs need to be upfront about all expenses, and often are but sometimes you need to be prepared to ask the right questions.
 
Since clubs are using credit cards more and more often to make the transactions simpler and to protect themselves against the financial default of the parents, you will need to either factor in the cost of interest over time or find a way to pay off the debt immediately to avoid credit card fees.  Many parents like the convenience of credit cards since they let them pay the high fees of a club over time, but you could also use your debit card to provide those monthly payments which would then come directly from your bank account.  On the other hand, you may not feel comfortable advertising your credit card information to your soccer organization.  If the club won’t accept a check, ask if they will take cash (and why wouldn’t they?). 
              
Since the contract parents are asked to sign may actually be quite ambiguous when it comes to parental rights, no parent should sign quickly without reading it through thoroughly.  That statement if fact for any contract you are asked to sign.
 
All states have clauses that protect consumers giving them a grace period, even after they sign, to opt out of the contract.  Check those laws in your state, so you can protect your interests.  Some clubs will try to pressure you to sign immediately making such threats as "until you sign your child isn’t on the team, so we can give the spot to another player."  Those are empty threats.  Even with state legal restrictions, the state soccer associations usually give players 24 to 72 hours to commit to a team in which time the club cannot, once offered, give away that slot to another player.  Since these offers are often made over the phone or in another verbal format, parents can request a written offer which will ensure their rights are protected.  Clubs are naturally worried that players may attend various tryouts and then pick the best option, rather than the first offer.  Even if you aren’t dealing with tryouts and competition for your child’s talents, clubs can be quite insistent that you make a quick commitment to even their recreational program.  Again, be sure what you are being asked to commit to when it comes to time and money.  Despite the carefree sense of the choice, parents can find themselves suddenly ensnared in a financial obligation they may not have realized.  Even young teams may be under pressure from other parents to participate in tournaments, albeit local, which will add expense and time to your investment.  Ask the questions and demand the answers before you sign on the dotted line.
              
Youth sports is a big business in America supporting thousands of coaches, referees, training facilities, and uniform manufacturers.  Therefore, no one takes this investment lightly.  Since parents are footing most of this revenue stream, it behooves us to protect ourselves by getting all the details of our obligations so we can make an informed choice on what are the best options for our families.  We may want to add a "soccer clause" of our own to the contracts we’re signing.  Don’t be afraid to ask the club to oblige you in that regard.  They aren’t the only ones taking a risk.

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Behavior Modification Through Exercise

Sam Snow

"My son is 9-years old and participates on our local soccer team. His coaches use "corrective conditioning" (push-ups, running, frog jumps) for bad behavior or poor performance. How do I convince the coaches that they can get optimal response/performance without using corporal punishment?"
  • Punitive coaching rarely works for the betterment of the player or the team, especially in youth sports. To use physical exercise as punishment with 9-year-olds is just wrong! The kids need exercise – yes, but in a healthy approach.
  • Even college and professional athletes are not given corporal punishment as the result is poor morale, not improved drive and determination by the players.
  • Exercise should be presented in a positive fashion with youngsters. Not only for the immediate effect on their soccer performance, but also their life-long health, we want exercise to be a positive experience. Using exercise as a punishment gives a negative connection to the experience. Exercise is then likely to be avoided by the children as they age. So both for the short-term and the long-term the negatives outweigh the positives of "corrective conditioning".
  • Bad behavior during a training session is often the fault of the coach. Misbehavior by children can occur on the soccer field when they are bored. Boredom usually stems from the use of drills instead of game-like activities. So if a coach wants to avoid the kids being unfocused and perhaps misbehaving, then shun drills in a training session. While we’re at it lets also dismiss the 3 L’s – Lines, Laps and Lectures.
  • Poor performance by a 9-year-old in a match is to be expected. Let’s be realistic – they are only 9! Soccer, like all team sports, is a long-term developmental sport. Players in soccer peak in their match performance in their 20’s and early 30’s. The adults need to be patient with the game-day performance of children whose life span is still counted in single digits.
  • Fitness improvement must come from playing many game-like activities in a training session.
  • The bottom line is that sports are supposed to be fun for kids. They are not little adult professional players. Always ask them to try their best, but live with the outcome of the match. They’ll get over it and so must the grown-ups. Be sure they give it their all (that’s a life lesson as well as a soccer one) while letting the joy of the game infuse them.

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A Stinging Defeat

Susan Boyd

It unfolds in slow motion, though it’s all over in a split-second. The ball floats unfettered toward the goal as we try to absorb the inevitable outcome. Before we can completely come to grips with what just happened our opposition erupts in celebration. There are no "do-overs," no further chances to erase the defeat. It is known by many names: buzzer beater, golden goal, Hail Mary, last-minute goal. It’s not a film filled with the bucolic images of stalwart losers and gracious victors as a musical score swells and the camera reveals close-ups of tough competitors who have a begrudging appreciation of one another’s efforts with life lessons well-learned. We’ve all been at the receiving end of such disappointment. It leaves us feeling hollow, angry, and even depressed. As Robbie said after a recent golden-goal loss: "I hate losing way more than I love winning." Our entire self-worth has been challenged in an instant.
 
It’s never fun to lose, but it’s less fun to lose in such a calamitous sudden manner. You can’t run the ball quickly back to the center line; there is no hope; the game is simply over. The ramifications can be disastrous. Players have come to blows over these losses. Coaches have even attacked players that they felt competed unfairly. Referees charge off the field knowing full well that they will often be the first recipients of the crowd’s disfavor. Dejected and stunned, players, spectators and coaches have salt rubbed in their wounds by the boundless joy of the opposition. As a result, several unfortunate consequences can occur.
 
There can be physiological effects on fans. P.C. Bernhardt and others studied 21 male fans watching their team in a World Cup game where their team lost. The study showed that the fans’ testosterone levels dropped dramatically following the loss resulting in depression, lethargy and, ironically, aggression. These fans actually suffered from long-term mood changes lasting up to two weeks following the event. This vicarious identification with the defeat of a favorite team happens all too frequently. Fans see opposing fans as real enemies that must be conquered to right a wrong. When they experience physiological effects, they often are less in control of their emotions. In addition to testosterone, a sudden loss can lead to a precipitous drop in serotonin, a neurotransmitter related to emotional well-being. Participants can experience depression, a loss of self-worth and anxiety, which can affect future sports performance. It’s not surprising that incidents involving a loss of self-control increase following any loss, but worsen with a sudden, unexpected loss.
               
Research also documents the contagion of these physiological effects even if a participant doesn’t experience any physiologic changes. As a member of a group, either a team or a fan base, we have shared expectations and outcomes. This "social psychology" has been well-documented. "These sports-triggered responses have their root in human evolution," says Dr. Michael Craig Miller, editor in chief of the Harvard Mental Health Letter. ''We join groups to enhance our self-esteem and decrease isolation. It's a way to connect . . . it's tribal," Miller said. He goes on to point out that our "fight or flight" response that comes from the anticipation and anxiety participants feel has its roots in evolution. Len Zaichkowsky, head of the sports psychology program at Boston University, notes that one fan’s behavior can give other fans license to act out in ways they would normally never do. He has measured the breathing rates, blood pressure, and sweating of fans in close games and after a distasteful defeat and found that there are similar changes among the group.
               
Most importantly, feelings of anger can absolutely crop up after a sudden loss. This anger can be directed toward the opposing team, a particular member of the opposing team, the referees, opposing fans, our own team, a member of our team and our coach. When we experience a devastating loss, we have feelings of frustration, indignity and animosity. Some of us can channel it away quickly without any self-destructive behaviors. But many of us may act out. It could be as benign as smacking our fist into our palm or letting loose a curse word, but for others the anger is more deep-seated. We are looking for revenge. We might goad someone into offending us so we feel vindicated in taking physical action, bark at our kids or our spouse, actually openly attack the object of our revenge, or turn the anger inward participating in self-destructive behaviors.
               
What does this all mean for youth soccer? While we expect such complex physiological and psychological effects in adults, they actually can extend down to our youngest players. Recently, the Kentucky High School Sports Association banned the traditional after-game handshake ritual because there were too many confrontations. Lest we think this behavior happens only in post-pubescent students, take note of players as young as six spitting in their palms before shaking the hands of opponents, or slapping the hands, or even punching an opposing player in the chest. I’ve seen these actions all in teams under the age of 11. We encourage competitiveness, so it shouldn’t be surprising that kids, who have less well-developed brains and impulse centers, can’t turn the competitiveness off at the sound of a final whistle. Add to the equation a sudden loss and the feelings can be exponentially increased. As parents, we need to model the best behavior we can in these situations even as we feel the same sting. We should encourage our kids to express their feelings in the safety of no judgment and support. Acknowledging for our kids that we feel the same anger and frustration lets them know that we can have those emotions without acting out on them. Despite what we may have witnessed or felt, the opposition hasn’t personally insulted us even as we feel insulted. It’s a game with outcomes that sometimes go our way and other times don’t. Letting our kids hear this philosophy consistently helps them internalize it. We especially need to avoid laying blame because that justifies feelings of injury and obstruction. We give our "enemy" a face.
               
Finally, we need to move on. The longer we dwell on any particularly distasteful and sudden loss, the more we feed our detrimental physiological and psychological reactions. Find a distraction for your young players. Most kids can drop their frustration in the face of a post-game treat or a movie. Go walk on the beach, throw a Frisbee or visit a museum, anything that you know your child would love to do. Make it a rule that no one can talk about the game during these activities. Hopefully by the time you finish, the bad feelings will be finished too. Keep your opinions to yourself — don’t denigrate any player, coach or ref. If your child has to vent, let him or her do so, but don’t jump in with any agreement or argument. Simply let your child know that you understand and sympathize with their concerns and further let him or her know that it’s time to focus on the next game because this chapter has already been written. It’s okay to have anger, but expressing it with verbal barbs, or worse, with physical behaviors, does nothing to resolve the issues and may even bring unwanted consequences. Life will be filled with drivers who cut us off, rude sales clerks, game losses, incompetent supervisors, test failures and other frustrations that need to be handled with calm, positive solutions, and restraint. 
               
Last week, Robbie’s college team ended their unbeaten streak with a golden goal loss at home. Worse, it was to a team in their league, so disrupted their run to winning the league. After every home game we parents serve the boys dinner, so we weren’t sure what we would face. Fortunately, the lads showed up happy to have warm food to fill their stomachs and a positive attitude about moving forward. I attribute that to the coaches and some great parenting over the years. Only one young man stormed off without participating in the meal. Hopefully he’ll find a way to cool down and move past this loss. We have another game in a few days, so the team needs to concentrate on winning that game and we fans need to bring our most positive support to the bleachers. All anyone can do is their best. In the long term there are far more important life events. That knowledge doesn’t completely remove the sting, but it can be the way to deal with defeat.

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