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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.

 

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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The 50/50 Blog: 3.5.14

Stickley

USMNT vs. Ukraine

The U.S. Men's National Team plays Ukraine today at 2 p.m. ET. Here are seven players who need to make a last case to make the roster.


USWNT 1, Japan 1

The U.S. Women's National Team played to a 1-1 draw with Japan in its opening match of the Algarve Cup. The Americans' goal came from Sydney Leroux, and it got the person running the Twitter account pretty excited...

 

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The 50/50 Blog: 3.4.14

Stickley

New U.S. National Team jerseys

U.S. Soccer and Nike unveiled the new U.S. Men's and Women's National Team home kit for 2014, which will be worn by the men at the World Cup in Brazil.


Cal South sweeps ODP Championships

2014-ODP-Championships--logo

For the second straight year, California South swept the US Youth Soccer ODP Championships, which took place Feb. 28- March 2 in Phoenix, Ariz. Read recaps of the action and check out video from the championship matches here.


USMNT vs. Ukraine is still on

Despite off-field issues in Ukraine and Cyprus, the U.S. Men's National Team's game against Ukraine is still to be played on Wednesday. Learn more about the matchup here.


Beauty from Benteke

Christian Benteke scored a pair of goals in Aston Villa's 4-1 win over Norwich City, and his first strike is a must-see. Watch it above.

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CHICAGO (March 3, 2014) – U.S. Soccer and Nike have unveiled a new U.S. Men’s and Women’s National Team home kit for 2014. - See more at: http://www.ussoccer.com/news/mens-national-team/2014/03/140303-new-kit.aspx#sthash.crUVtTyZ.dpuf

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Marching On

Susan Boyd

It’s funny how certain connections get made in our brains. I passed the parking lot outside the indoor facility where Bryce and Robbie played for a decade. The lot was always full in the winter with plenty of late comers circling. We parked there at least twice a week and often as many as six times a week. Now the lot still fills with cars, but our car wasn’t included. It has no need to be. And that little fact made me wistful. Somehow life was marching on leaving just memories in its wake.                

How often have any of us remarked when we hear the name of a college or pro player announced and wonder if he or she is related to another player we used to watch. Amazingly, we discover it’s a son or daughter of the player, and we feel ancient. How did this happen? That 19-year-old we cheered can’t possibly have a child old enough to play in college — after all, we’re not that old. But it’s true. The generations continue to expand. The time our kids play in any one era, be it youth soccer, travel team, high school and/or college, never takes up more than four or five years. So we flow seamlessly into each chapter, until suddenly, the book is over. Other books open up. Our children will graduate from college, get jobs, find a spouse, have kids and need us to babysit. Yet, there is something really vacant in our souls when soccer is over.               

I think we invest a lot into our kids’ sports, even more than in their schooling, because we experience most of that sport life first hand. I don’t imagine most of us attend our kids’ schools every day, peering over their shoulders as they complete tests, sitting in the back of the room shouting, “Way to go” as they answer a discussion question, muttering at the teacher if we feel he has wrongly disciplined our child, or buying our students Quantum Physics spirit wear. On the other hand, we intimately share the ups, downs, ins and outs of our children’s youth sports. When the sports end, there’s a void that must mimic empty nest syndrome (though I have yet to experience that as our children insist on returning home in leap frog manner!).                 

In all the other phases of our children’s lives, we are looking forward to the next phase. We welcome graduation because it means, we hope, that our children will be ready to take on employment. We welcome employment because it signals a commitment to independence. We definitely welcome their marriages since we will gain another beloved family member and because it hopefully means we will soon be grandparents. I can speak from about that journey having watched it unfold with our daughters. They were more traditional — school, graduation, jobs, marriage, children. Deana had been a dancer and wanted to act, but ended up changing colleges and becoming a fashion merchandizer. Now she runs fashion merchandizing for a worldwide company, travels to exotic locations and loves what she does. Shane went to work for the Minnesota Twins, married, had children, and became a stay at home mom. At each step, I didn’t experience any voids because the phases segued one into the other like a seamless ribbon of accomplishments.                

When sports end there isn’t the next sports phase to look forward to. It’s just over and we have to move on to the more customary life paths. Maybe that’s why we get so anxious about our kids making the travel team and the high school team and being recruited to play in college. We have hopes of them turning pro. We want so badly for this to be our child’s journey for years to come. Life phases happen naturally and generally on an anticipated timetable. Our kids may not get into the dream college, but they will get into college. They may not get a Wall Street job, but they will get a job that satisfies and supports them. They will find a soul mate and that may lead to children whether naturally, in vitro, or adopted. The options are all open and all possible. That’s not the case with sports, yet we want a future in sports to be just as conceivable and predictable. Unfortunately, we have very little control over those next steps. So much is dictated by talent, luck and exposure.               

What happens when the sports don’t end? Not necessarily what you would expect. Our oldest son just signed a pro contract with an indoor soccer team. Be careful what you wish for. His pay is so low that he has had to move out of his apartment back home and we’re supporting the kid again! People, however, remain impressed, which is wonderful for him. Getting there has been a long struggle, and staying there will be even more of a struggle. However, we, his parents, can take little credit. Sure we schlepped him to practices, games and tournaments, bought thousands of dollars in clothing and gear, flew him to tryouts, and listened to his anguish as opportunities evaporated when they seemed so sure. But that’s what parents do. Making the pro level was totally on him. He persevered, sacrificed, dealt with adversity, kept his body at fighting fit, and worked every network he could. We didn’t do that. My point is that in a way this is the natural progression of his life, but it happens to not follow the usual path. He still has to finish his last year of college.  He can’t even think about marriage or children at this juncture. He’s opted to follow a life route that will eventually result in all the things our children accomplish, but he has to take some detours before getting there.              

Living the life of an athlete may seem glamorous, just like living the life of an actor or a musician, but truthfully it is just plain hard work with little monetary reward. All their satisfaction comes from personal achievement. When we went to the first game for which he suited up, I felt oddly distant from the experience, as if I had entered his office and was watching him doing his job. It was completely different than the youth soccer experience including high school and college. In those games I was sitting with parents who had the same investment in their children succeeding as I did in my son. We were a fraternity bonded by our allegiance to our children’s team. Now I was in a huge arena filled with strangers who cheered and jeered without regard to those players being someone’s offspring. My pride at his success was no different than any parent’s pride in a diploma or a new job. But with that pride came a void. I was no longer that partner in his development. I was a spectator.                

He’s at practice right now. I’m not involved in any way even though he is practicing in the same facility with that parking lot. I won’t be pulling my car into a slot after letting him out at the door. I won’t be walking into the indoor park to lean over the balcony and observe his practice. And I won’t be gathering him up afterwards to listen to his chatter about good and bad play on the way home. The only thing that will remain the same for now is that I end up washing his sweaty practice clothes! But life has marched on with his soccer becoming the same professional phase as attending graduate school or getting a job.                 

Bryce had this dream that he announced after a brutal loss when he was 8 years old. I expected him to leave the field dejected, but he was oddly effusive. “I want to do this all my life!” Yeah, yeah, right. Don’t all kids look at Lionel Messi or Abby Wambach and dream of being them? But, as a parent, I did what I could to support that hope. Nevertheless, with all the carpools, private coaching, competitive teams, top tournaments and a private college that cost four times more than his scholarship, it ended up being Bryce’s choice to dig in and do what was necessary to get to the goal. Somewhere along that journey my role changed from personal to detached. My involvement had been intense and daily, just as all parents experience with soccer. Then eventually our participation morphs into a distant observer or evaporates all together with the end of soccer. It’s tough. Our dream may be that our kids continue to play, but the longer they play the less they need us to be a part of the process. So in achieving the dream, they naturally push us out of the game. That’s what has to happen because getting to the top has to be a personal commitment unfettered from anything we parents want. That leaves us circling the lot without a reason to park.

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