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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.

 

Progression of Small-Sided Games

Sam Snow

Across the nation and around the world soccer clubs have already made the change or are in the process of making the change to small-sided games (SSG) for preteen age groups. If your club hasn’t already made the modification then it’s behind the times. This change in soccer culture is an acknowledgement of societal impacts on sport, especially in the nations within CONCACAF and UEFA.

In the USA, the move to SSG is advocated by the United States Olympic Committee, U. S. Soccer, the National Soccer Coaches Association of America, American Youth Soccer Organization, Soccer Association for Youth and of course US Youth Soccer.

US Youth Soccer has promoted SSG in the early 1980’s. The initial effort was to change U8 soccer from 11 vs 11 on a full size field and with a full size goal to something saner for the players. The result was 8-a-side soccer.  Since then the game has evolved and the need for SSG is more poignant than ever. Beginning in 2000, US Youth Soccer has advocated a stair step approach for youth players into the adult version of soccer.

Here is the logic behind our progression of 3 vs 3 to 8 vs 8 and eventually 11-a-side. Our work on SSG began under the direction of Dr. Tom Fleck in the 1980s.  With a doctorate in primary school education, Dr. Fleck wanted to modify soccer so that it made more sense to young players and to novice coaches who had not ever played soccer themselves. Keep in mind that in the 1980s perhaps 95% of our coaches had never played the sport that they now found themselves coaching. We needed a format that made sense to them and to very young players. We could not say to a 6-year-old just go play with other kids in the neighborhood or with a parent, because none of them were playing the sport.

We recommend 3 vs 3 for the U6 age group. Given the ego-centric nature of 5 and 6-year-olds, to account for parallel play and for there to be some notion of soccer shape we settled on 3-a-side without goalkeepers for this age group.

We recommend 4 vs 4 for the U8 age group. Still no goalkeepers – let all of the kids be near the ball and chase it up and down the pitch. The ego-centric approach to soccer has improved, but not much, so let’s keep the numbers small. Also with 4-a-side it makes it easier to teach partner play and for the kids to understand it. Finally, the purists like these numbers as it theoretically allows for width and depth for the attacking team.

We recommend 6 vs 6 for the U10 age group. The position of goalkeeper is now introduced to the game. Small group play is now possible and 6-a-side allows for various combinations of triangles around the ball. For the less experienced and/or knowledgeable coach 6-a-side allows for a formation without a midfield line in the team, so it is easier to understand for the coach and young players. However, a more knowledgeable and experienced coach may introduce a midfield line into the game for the advanced group of young players.

We recommend 8 vs 8 for the U12 age group. There is now a midfield line in the team. We think that adding two more field players into the team is enough for children this age to absorb (cognitively and psychosocially) and actually be able to use in a match. The coaching emphasis now is on large group tactics. The State Associations, along with US Youth Soccer, started working on implementing SSG for the preteen age groups in the 1990s. Many of the State Associations have already established 8-a-side for the U12 age group, which is a fulcrum age group.

In a nutshell, this is how we have come to this place on the player development pathway.

SSG

Figure 1 From the Player Development presentation in the National Youth License coaching course

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Chasing Butterflies

Susan Boyd

Monarch butterflies are the original “snowbirds” flying south to Mexico or Southern California every October to lay their eggs in the same trees every year, then returning to their northern summer homes in the spring to live, feed, and enchant us.  They love drifting through the verdant open spaces of our kids’ soccer fields, so practices and games are often populated with flurries of monarchs adding a splash of brilliant color to the scene.  For very young players, the butterflies can prove to be a major distraction encouraging children to observe them at a minimum and chase them down at a maximum.  The usual chaos on the field becomes heightened as players twirl and frolic with their new winged teammates.  Staying focused in a game can prove to be nearly impossible.

Distracted players are frustrating for coaches and usually even more frustrating for parents who hope to will their sons and daughters to greatness through the power of their desire.  Watching John or Jane chasing butterflies instead of the ball leaves adults in despair.  I can definitely sympathize.  Robbie was well-known for his inability to remain focused on the game.  He loved to watch the clouds overhead, try to find four-leaf clovers, and chase butterflies in his Under-6 to Under-8 years.  If the ball came to him, he politely passed it off the nearest player without regard to uniform color – we even got asked if he was color-blind.  He loved participating. He gleefully put on his gear twice a week, ran onto the field for practice or games, jumped around with his friends, and stayed happy throughout the game no matter the outcome.  However, he could not stay focused on the rules and strategies of the game.  He loved his outdoor time for his own purposes.  He played with a carefree abandon that spoke to joy and innocence.

So imagine our surprise when he moved from a recreation club to a select club and the coach approached us with the news that he was a special player.  We had moved to the club because Bryce had been asked to join the U-11 team there, and so we decided to bring Robbie over to simplify transportation to practices easier with both at the same club. We had no expectation that Robbie was ever going to be a soccer player.  Yet somehow, in the space of a short winter break, he developed a keen interest in assertively playing the game.  We didn’t notice it because we were not expecting it.  Within a few months Robbie moved from major daisy picker to a focused and, I would argue, far too aggressive player.  The joy he had brought to his practices in the earliest years continued but was overshadowed with intensity.  I have no idea what caused the change; if I did I would market it to all the soccer parents who want their children to excel so I could retire with a million dollars.  His brother had always been intense, so maybe he just started trying to emulate his older sibling.  Or maybe the structure and pressures of a select club as opposed to a recreation club initiated a change.  Maybe maturity in his brain did it.  Whatever it was, the age of innocence came to an abrupt end.

We parents recognize that our kids will always be a reflection of us – translating their success into a measure of our own success.  So it’s natural to want our kids to be like those YouTube phenoms from Brazil, Germany, even the U.S. who dribble wildly and aggressively down the field against much older players and score.  We hear about kids signed by major professional clubs at young ages, so why not our prodigy.  There is a youth football coach called the QB Guru, Steve Clarkson, who regularly gets kids in their early teens committed to colleges before they even enter high school.  His professional graduates have earned, according to Forbes’ magazine, over $300 million in contracts with the NFL.  Joe Montana sent his own sons to the camp.  So why wouldn’t parents fall over themselves to get their child coached by this successful man?  With a monetary prize out there for the driven player, there’s no surprise that parents are not only willing, but wishing, to have the innocent, playing just for fun days finish quickly and the focused, high expectation days begin.

I’m very proud that my sons played in high school and college and that Bryce has even signed with a professional indoor team.  But I also worry that both boys have paid with serious social, psychological, and competitive costs to achieve these goals.  They both experienced several months in their soccer playing years of sitting on the bench and even more time (for Bryce it was two years) of little to no playing time.  The frustrations of not being able to contribute can lead to depression, self-doubt, loss of initiative, and anger.  With increasing pressures many of the boys’ excellent soccer-playing friends quit the game, looking to find an easier, more enjoyable way of getting through high school and college without the stress of performing at a peak level constantly.  Robbie left his college team when the coach became verbally abusive, using racially loaded language on the field and in the locker room.  He returned when the coach was fired for his behavior, but not immediately.  He hesitated because he wanted to be sure that he would experience pleasure to counteract the pressure.  His friendships and his natural passion and drive for the game tipped the scale.  No one achieves at the highest levels without serious sacrifices which may include free time, happiness, grades, friendships, love, family time, participation in normal childhood activities, putting up with surly coaches, dealing with nasty opponents (both verbally and physically), and major responsibility early in life.  We hear the stories of Olympic and professional athletes who hit the ice at 3 a.m. or leave home to live and train with a coach as pre-teens with no guarantee of success and the threat of injury always present.  We experienced our own version of this story when Robbie played with the Chicago Magic.   I picked him up at school at 2:48 p.m., driving three hours through rush hour traffic to get him to practice by 6:00 p.m., two hours of practice, and then a two hour drive home getting in between 10 and 10:30 p.m.  He did his homework in the car on the way home and used the phone to stay connected with his friends.  I did that three or four days a week with the weekends devoted to games all over the Midwest.  It continued that way for four years.  I persevered because Robbie loved playing at a top level and being an important part of a team that regularly went to national tournaments, but he also gave up most of a “normal” high school life.  It split our family into the Milwaukee half and the Chicago half.  I would see Bryce when he woke up and when he went to bed, which was tough on both of us.

We parents need to be really sure that moving to a selective and intensive team properly serves our children.  Every year in the weeks before tryouts, we reevaluated their team decisions with the boys.  Our rule was that once they made the commitment, they had to honor it for the year, so they needed to be very sure that they wanted this more than other things they would be missing out on.  We talked about missing football games with their friends, missing after school activities, missing going with friends just to hang out at a burger joint or the mall, missing some major landmarks in high school such as prom (we tried to avoid that as much as possible, but it had to be factored into the decision), and dealing with the pressures of their team including the chance that they would be benched in favor of a player with more skills, aggression, and/or experience.  Even with weeks of consideration and planning, there were still days during the year of just wanting to give up.  On the plus side, their teams often played in the same tournaments, and if not Bryce would guest play with Chicago Magic, so we were able to enjoy those events as a family.  Nevertheless we paid a price as a family unit and the boys paid a price on their own. 

I have no idea if later in life the boys will regret taking the pathway they did, but, of course, hindsight allows for an unclouded perfect assessment.  We have constantly reinforced the idea that you can only do so many things in the time you have, so you need to be content with your choices.  Still, I occasionally get wistful for another history where their sacrifices disapper.  I think that Robbie had the right idea all those years ago when he just enjoyed being out in nature, watching the clouds, looking for clover, and chasing butterflies.  Such a carefree existence can’t last forever, but it would be wonderful if it lasted as long as possible.  What a fantastic foundation for happiness.

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Mean What We Say

Susan Boyd

A man in a body bag lying on a gurney at the funeral home awaiting embalming suddenly starts kicking. Declared dead, here he was alive. A miracle? Perhaps. A couple walking in the foothills of the Sierra Madres stumble across rusted cans filled with old gold coins worth millions. A miracle? Probably not, but lucky none the less. A soccer team beats an opponent that on paper was far superior. A miracle?  Absolutely not. The use of the word miracle illustrates how loosely we use language without regard to actual context. We call anything unexpected and unusual a miracle. It diminishes the value of the word and its real impact in our conversations. We banter around the term to describe things as insignificant as getting good grades, “It’s a miracle she passed Trigonometry,” getting somewhere on time, “It’s a miracle we didn’t hit any red lights,” or avoiding discomfort, “It’s a miracle he didn’t throw up after eating all his Halloween candy.”              

As a writer and English teacher, I am constantly encouraging students to be precise in their language. We accept laziness in composition — just look at any text or Twitter — and we settle for the use of vulgar four letter words as our adjectives of choice. This results in communication, which not only doesn’t elevate the conversation, but actually obscures it. We use emoticons to relay our meaning rather than expressing the meaning in a way it can be universally understood. When my students tackle a writing project and have to operate without the safety net of “lol” or smiley faces, they often flounder in the task. The nuances of satire, the delicacy of emotion, and the power of argument fall outside their abilities. Without the proper vocabulary to express themselves and the inability to depend on some type of external composition crutch, they completely freeze up.          

One might assume a thesaurus would help, but it can actually inhibit good communication because students choose word options that are totally inappropriate to the context simply because they perceive the option as intellectual without regard to its meaning. In one episode of “Friends,” Joey has to compose a letter to support Monica and Chandler’s adoption application. His coarse product prompts Ross to suggest he use a thesaurus to create a more sophisticated response. The ensuing letter reads like a ridiculous parody. The sentence, “They are warm, nice people with big hearts” became “They are human prepossessing homo sapiens with full-sized aortic pumps.” He even signs the letter “Baby Kangaroo Tribbiani.” In the struggle to sound wise, he, like many of my students, ended up sounding foolish. Ironically, to find a perfect synonym requires that the writer fully understand the meanings of the synonyms available to use.             

I rely on a great text to help me find the perfect word for any situation. It was compiled by an attorney, who became exasperated by the number of cases he witnessed being overturned because of imprecise language in the jury instructions or in the decisions. Called “The Thinker’s Thesaurus: Sophisticated Alternatives to Common Words,” it goes beyond the expected synonyms to discover related words based on use rather than just meaning. Every alternate has a clear explanation of its definition and use.  For instance, “word” has 27 distinctly different usages. Author Peter Meltzer provides detailed examples of each usage, helping a writer select the best synonym for the job. Eponym (a word derived from a real or fictional person) has a very different utility than common synonyms for “word,” such as “term” or “expression.” The sentence, “Marat Sade provided us with the eponym for ‘sadism,’” more clearly defines meaning than simply saying he provided us with the term “sadism.” The latter could be interpreted as saying he made up the word, rather than he was the model for the word which is what eponym means.           

Clearly, I am a strong advocate for using words that most accurately state what we mean. Which brings me to the word, “miracle.” I’m not a religious person, but I was raised in a strict religious home, and I have many relatives and friends of all faiths who participate regularly in religious services, studies and lifestyle. I’m well aware of how loosely we as a society have come to banter around the word “miracle,” without regard to its significance in the lives of people of faith. Most of us who speak of miracles aren’t talking about some powerful, meaningful and unexpected gift from God that cannot be comprehended through reason alone. Instead we are talking about some experience that benefitted us in a surprising way. But the actual event can be logically explained.           

When the 1980 U.S. Olympic hockey team beat the Russian team, it was declared “The Miracle on Ice.” The Disney movie about the event was titled simply and provocatively, “Miracle.” This past month, all the pundits were asking, “Can the U.S. repeat the miracle on ice?” The clamoring about miracles makes good press and certainly hypes the event to increase viewership (and it follows – revenue), but it belittles the actual meaning of miracle. We can say it was astonishing or unpredictable, but we know any “miracle” in the sports world is fully explainable. The team trained well, the opponent stumbled, external elements played to the team’s strengths, or, like it happens in soccer, the fluke shot scores. It’s amazing when we make all the green lights, but not miraculous. It’s wonderful when it doesn’t rain during the company picnic, but that’s not a miracle. The difficulty is that “Astonishing!” isn’t as strong a headline as “Miracle!” “Lucky” isn’t as emotional a word as “miracle.” We have gotten used to the hyperbole of the word without regard to its specific spiritual intent. The more we use the word indiscriminately the more we demean its power.

I don’t have a strong investment in whether or not miracle is used correctly, but through the years I have been well aware of how sloppily we use certain language that should have specific meaning. Recently, I heard a panel discussion on a girl who had been declared brain dead after routine surgery. Her family, unable to accept the diagnosis, have chosen to sustain her in a hospice on life support with the belief that God would provide a miracle and resurrect her. All but one member of the panel argued that there would be no miracles because someone clinically dead will remain dead even if her organs are kept working with machines. The lone dissenting member argued that miracle is defined by an unexplainable event like coming back from the dead. A miracle is an act that exists outside of reason and science. Whether or not you believe in its possibility isn’t the point. Nevertheless, the panel ended up angrily mocking this man’s argument. When the discussion shifted to another topic, people constantly brought the dialog back to what constituted a miracle, inferring that if he was ridiculous enough to believe that a child could come back from the dead then he must believe other things like finding a penny on the ground or losing ten pounds without dieting are miracles, trivializing his point. This got me thinking about how we appropriate language to serve our purposes without considering how that usage affects others.             

No matter what I feel, the random use of the word miracle will continue. We are too inured to the impact our use has. However, I still want people to recognize how careless we can be with our word choices. English has such a richness. In “My Fair Lady,” Professor Henry Higgins says to Eliza Doolittle:  “The majesty and grandeur of the English language — it’s the greatest possession we have. The noblest thoughts that ever flowed through the hearts of men are contained in its extraordinary, imaginative and musical mixtures of sound.” The way we use powerful, singular words like miracle in a broad spectrum of occasions and the way we have reduced our communication to emoticons and abbreviations are symptoms of how we have settled for a less majestic and grand language. When we accept less and less precision and splendor in our selections, we give ourselves over to misunderstanding and dullness. More significantly, we do our children a disservice. Even the SAT is accommodating our diminishing language immersion by forgoing the writing sample and making the vocabulary more “user-friendly” code for simplifying. More and more, I see schools ready to abandon writing and speech as considering them insignificant aspects of an educated life. We have gotten sloppy in our language because we aren’t challenged to be smart and accurate. Therefore, we are subjected to misspelled and grammatically incorrect scrawls on the news and the inability of people to articulate an argument. We foolish believe that if we can put words on a page, we are capable of writing, which is no truer than believing if we can walk we can win the 100-meter dash. We aren’t thoroughbred writers and speakers. Excellence requires years of development. If we spent as much time encouraging our children to become outstanding readers, speakers and writers as we spend encouraging them to develop a perfect first touch, we would prepare them to be exceptional citizens who not only clearly mean what they say but express themselves with power and creativity .

 

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Playing in Stressful Matches

Sam Snow

A youth coach wrote in with these comments and question:

"A few of the boys I coach in soccer (U13) tend to feel the stress when playing highly competitive games in Division I. Despite trying to reassure them and instill confidence, they tend to freeze up and not play fluidly. This causes them to make mistakes, which only makes the situation worse – they then further lose confidence in their abilities and the cycle continues. When they play games that aren’t high stakes they relax, have fun, and play well. That helps restore some of their confidence. I try and use those low stakes games as examples for them but it doesn't seem to make a difference. I've also tried positive visualizations (having them picture in their minds & speak out loud how they will play) which has helped a little at times. Do you have any advice to help reach these boys? I know they can do it – they don’t seem to know it though. Thanks!"

The scenario described with young players who are learning how to compete is not unusual. That the coach is already practicing visualization is a wonderful step toward helping the players cope with game day stress. I suggest adding to the self-talk and team talk the mantra of the US National Teams – respect everyone, fear no one.

Learning to play against quality competition is an ongoing effort with players moving up in the levels of play. Just look at the first day of matches of the 2013 CONCACAF Gold Cup with the successes of Martinique and Panama. In two matches, the lower ranked team knocked off the higher ranked team. This U13 team could draw inspiration from such performances.

Here are a few suggestions to build up the team’s performance and confidence:

  • Play training matches versus older teams. Play three 25 minute periods. In this way the coach can change the lineup and/or formation between each period. The coaches should be the referees during this training match so that they can speak to players during the run of play. Playing against a team that is one or two years older will help the younger team to deal with a faster game both physically and mentally. When they then go back to a match versus their own age group the game speed will seem easier to manage.
     
  • In training sessions, play more two touch and one touch small-sided games (2 vs. 2 up to 8 vs. 8) to get the players accustomed to thinking and playing faster.
     
    • Speed of play is mostly mental (tactical decision making) and secondarily physical (technical speed and physical movement). In training sessions, build the team up to a full field game of two touch for a 10 minute stretch. The coach might have to gradually increase the length of time literally one minute per training session.
       
  • Continue training on visualization. Now add a trigger word.
     
    • Develop a refocusing technique helps to trigger mental focus to a controlled state of mind. The trigger word helps the player to forget about a mistake just made or to calm oneself just before a stressful moment, such as taking a corner kick. Practice the trigger word by spelling it out in one’s mind during the day of the match. Try the word “support”, which is important for all players to do for their teammates whether attacking or defending and regardless of their position in the team formation. Even during the match when a player senses distress then spell “support” out in the mind and/or say it out loud. The use of the word “support” is a great example of the effective use of a self-talk trigger word used to remain focused during difficult moments in the match.
       
    • Self-talk refers to the internal dialogue that occurs in one’s mind, such as the instructions or encouragement that a player gives to oneself. Players’ thoughts occur often and are very automatic; for this reason rather than trying to eliminate all thoughts during a match a coach should try to work with players on managing their thoughts. When players begin to doubt themselves or tell themselves what “not” to do, it tends to lead to poor performances and mistakes. By having a go-to trigger word, it gives the player the skill needed to counter their unproductive thoughts. By replacing the negative talk with their trigger word, they are able to remain focused on the skills needed to be successful.
       
  • During a match, point out to the players the small victories they are achieving:
     
    • A pass well received
       
    • A tackle made for possession
       
    • An intelligent off-the-ball run
       
    • Good communication with a teammate
       
    • Constantly looking around the field for tactical cues
       
    • Tactically good positioning
       
    • Acts of good sportsmanship

 

  • Remind them that their anxiety stems from their competitive drive. That’s a good thing. Now refocus that drive onto individual performance, not on the outcome of the match.

    • Did I make positive comments to my teammates throughout the match?

    • Did I consistently make recovery runs when we were defending?

    • Did I work hard to move to be in the right place to support my teammates?

    • Did I consistently visualize myself making good passes/distribution to my teammates?

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