Monday, September 05, 2016
The dates of a school year are generally fluid depending on your community, but the birthdate requirements are firm. Since children develop both physically and mentally at very different rates, there will be a wide variety of ability and maturity within the confines of those dates. My husband, born in October, missed the school-age cutoff but started early anyway, and was only 4’ 11” when he entered high school, growing two inches in college. I have a September birthday, missed the deadline by a week, but still began school with my older friends. However I was lucky to be tall, measuring 5’ and the inches of my grade (5’ 3” in third grade up to 5’ 9” in ninth grade). Our oldest daughter has a December birthday, yet after first grade she was moved up to third because she fit in better with the children who populated the next school year. In contrast, our second daughter has a July birthday which met the cut-off though at the late end. She took after her father as a late bloomer and would have benefitted by waiting a year to enter school. Dates on a calendar don’t predict anything about readiness for school, sports, or socialization, yet they dictate much of our children’s participation in their lives’ activities. There is no hard and fast rule in nature like there is in officialdom.
For many years youth soccer has used the school age template when determining where to place a child. It make sense because it kept kids together with those from their grade letting them play with friends and facilitating car pools. US Youth Soccer goes by calendar year which is how every FIFA nation (with the exception of the US and Canada) conducts their registrations for youth, development, and national teams. Last year US Soccer (USSF) decided to switch to calendar year registrations beginning in August 2017. Most organizations, including US Youth Soccer, implemented this standard in August 2016. So you may have noticed the change when your child signed up for his or her team. It does complicate some issues while simplifying others. Players can still play up, so I imagine several teams will remain intact despite the date changes, and that clubs will slowly transition into teams based solely on calendar year registrations as younger players enter. It will finally place the United States on the same competitive composition scales as the rest of the world, solidifying our membership in this global community. It changes the dynamics for players because now those born in the early months of any year will switch from being the youngest on a team to being the oldest. It also provides for a wider range of competitive interactions since kids will be playing with and against those in different grades. It may cause some carpool hiccups, but neighborhoods don’t change even if age limits do, so the likelihood of creating a travel network remains good.
Calendar year registration simplifies deadlines since it isn’t based on a child’s expected grade level which can be fluid based on several factors. Even with the school year standard, kids were never guaranteed to play with classmates and friends. Skill levels, limits on team size, and convenience of practice schedules always have played a role in team assignments. The calendar year insures that kids will play with some grade level peers even if they skip a grade or are held back. That helps remove some stigma from the process. Likewise it puts us on equal footing with our developmental programs which have always been calendar year based since they had to mesh with all the other teams in the world when it came to cross-nation competitions. However, parents may now be confused by the designations of U-6 through U-23 which were previously based on school year calendars. This link to the new matrix which should help . With the calendar year implementation the U designation will truly mean “under” the age. Until the dust settles, many clubs may opt to keep older teams together by having those born in the earlier months “play up” with their classmates with birthdates in the later months of the previous birth year, effectively maintaining the school year designations. Clubs can then delay fully enforcing the calendar year birthdates only beginning with the youngest teams this year and restructuring teams as opportunities to do so become available.
The blow back on this change has been strong. Parents argue that the new guidelines unfairly target players born in the later months of a calendar year who aren’t as physically developed as players born earlier in the year. However the truth is that a player born, for example, July 28, 2001 in a 2000-2001 school year calendar scenario was subject to the same argument of being developmentally behind a player born August 2, 2000. When ages are spread over a year there will be discrepancies. Other parents argue that teams have been split apart, though that doesn’t need to happen at all should a club want to keep teams together by having the players born in a later year play up in the birth calendar year of the older players. The argument could be made that these kids playing up will lose a year of competitive soccer, but they could also elect to move back down to their calendar year should their team disband or change dramatically in make-up. U-13 to U-15 turns out to be a very volatile period of team registrations as kids drop sports to focus on studies, to focus on just one sport, or to move to a different competitive level team, so staying with a team of schoolmates does become harder as kids grow older.
Having the option to play in a calendar year or up a year provides players with lots of team options. One parent complained that his league dropped U-8 because no one wanted to travel for 4-v-4. I’m guessing those parents didn’t find this to be “real” soccer and therefore not worth the time investment. Most of the youngest teams play against teams in close geographic proximity, even playing teams from their own club, so travel to a game shouldn’t be a factor and certainly that decision has little to do with a change in age parameters. Another parent voiced concerned that her daughter “would be left behind” while her peers got to advance. This isn’t school where being “held back” relates to not being able to handle the material. There’s no failure in adjusting to the new age template, and I would argue that her child will benefit from more developmental training and from fostering new friendships. In truth no one likes change because each person sees it in terms of how it affects them personally. Changing the age registration standards certainly can present some individual concerns, but overall it doesn’t need to be a seismic shift.
The other big change will be a greater emphasis on small-sided games especially 7-v-7 and 9-v-9 rather than 11-v-11 on a regulation pitch. For many years these smaller teams have been fielded for the youngest ages, and US Youth Soccer has been encouraging this philosophy of training for over 20 years. However, there has been parental pressure to move as quickly as possible from small-sided games to full field games because they see it as an advancement for their kids. However, the studies on development of soccer players have overwhelmingly established that small-sided games promote far better improvement by allowing players more touches on the ball, giving them the opportunity to learn different positions, and requiring them to make more tactical decisions. With fewer players on the pitch and a smaller field, players need to interact often and quickly, opening the door to developing the collaborative and social skills that make stronger teammates. From the instructional perspective, coaches can more easily keep track of players, work with them on how to play off the ball, and control the speed and level of play needed to insure all players have equal opportunities to practice skills. Therefore, in conjunction with the new age guidelines, 11-v-11 games are limited to those U-13 and older, giving players two years to adjust to full field play before high school. These guidelines will be required by August 2017 as overseen by USSF, but US Youth Soccer is implementing them as best practices as of August 2016. They have asked their 55 state association members to adopt this training philosophy which will be extended to league and tournament play. Most of the member associations had already moved to small-sided training formats along with their league and tournament play, but will now be doing it under the new age guidelines. These standards can be found at .
Coaches recognize the immediate benefits of this training philosophy. Players are constantly engaged in the play since the fields are small and the ball moves from space to space quickly. If kids are involved consistently it not only boosts their skill development but makes the game more enjoyable. Likewise parents will have the opportunity to see their kids in action rather than sitting on the sidelines or daisy picking on the pitch when nothing is happening around them. The focus is on how to play rather than scoring goals, so even when players have the strength to make long shots, these are discouraged in lieu of fostering strong team play with passing and positioning. Small-sided games give coaches the freedom to advance the more subtle aspects of soccer play which ultimately create sharp, capable, and wily players. Coaches can spend time working with players on their off-the-ball movement and strategy.
Again, there has been some strong displeasure with these standards. Many parents complain that the fields and goals are just too small leading to kids scoring goals from the opponent’s touch line because they can kick so powerfully and kids playing in “mobs” on the pitch. These shouldn’t be issues if kids are coached in small-side tactics and techniques. Unfortunately, some coaches don’t understand how to instruct players within a small-sided atmosphere. The emphasis should be on learning to find and keep one’s space, first touches, various team formations, and keeping the ball contained through strong passing and appropriate dribbling. Kids shouldn’t swarm to the ball, although that’s where they start off because everyone understands the primary principle of soccer is to possess the ball.
It’s up to coaches to teach kids that through planned and spaced formations and using one another to move the ball down the pitch, a team can actually be more productive. That’s difficult to do on a big field where coaches can’t watch all the players and react to their play quickly enough to show in real time how to improve a particular move or decision. How players learn these lessons will be uneven for the first few years, but good coaching recognizes that kids need to make mistakes to understand what does and doesn’t work. They also need immediate instruction. Doing a post-practice evaluation won’t help a child whose retention of what went on in a game is limited to probably the last few minutes. The best coaching can be done when coaches can step in immediately and use various actions and outcomes on the pitch as teachable moments. Volunteer coaches are encouraged to use resources and take courses offered by the National Soccer Coaches Association of America (NSCAA) beyond the minimum license required. The NSCAA provides lots of educational materials for both paid and volunteer coaches through their website: www.nscaa.com. For our part as parents, we have to refrain from expecting that developmental soccer will be played the same way as competitive soccer. Even though developmental level teams (U-6 through U-12) do compete they are evolving in how that competition is practiced on the pitch. It’s important that the emphasis be on skills at first and slowly grow into tactics and formations. Once a player has confident skills and has had the opportunity to practice these in all the positions including the right, left, and center spots then he or she will be fully capable of settling on a position and a level of competition with which they feel most comfortable.
Things will take some time to settle out because changes are always disruptive. To many parents, these changes may seem unnecessary and ridiculous, especially if the message boards are any indication of the opinions out there. The age registration changes do create some upheaval, but overall the actual impact will be negligible despite the “sky is falling” feelings being expressed. Most of the concerns have been addressed and resolved. The benefits include a less complicated and more transparent set of dates and bring the United States into alignment with the rest of the world. Parents may ask if being in step globally really benefits anyone except those few players who move on to the highest levels of play, but I know from personal experience that even younger players compete across national boundaries against teams who follow the FIFA age guidelines.
When my sons were U-10 and U-11, they played in tournaments which included international teams from schools in England, Germany, France, and Croatia. Standardizing the age ranges helps standardize the competition. Small-sided games may seem far from what we all consider soccer to be, but in truth they end up creating players who have a greater knowledge and skill base than players tossed onto a huge pitch. In fact, despite what some parents have complained about, small-sided games don’t discourage kids from playing because they actually get far more activity and contact than they would get on a larger pitch with more teammates. The discouragement may actually be an outgrowth of hearing the grown-ups moan about how boring these games are to watch and how impractical they appear to be. Kids who have the opportunity to feel successful, which small-sided games almost universally ensure, are more likely to stick with an activity. Kids learn to respect all the positions on the field, how to interact socially and collaboratively, why certain decisions are made in terms of formation and tactics, and how to enjoy being a fully significant member of a team. I’m hoping people can give this all a chance, look at how some of their concerns are addressed and resolved, and how overall our children will benefit from these changes.