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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.

 

Practice Players

Sam Snow

The youth soccer experience is supposed to be all about the players, not coaches, administrators, referees or parents. The portion below in bold is a response from a coach to a parent. The italic portion is the ensuing comments and question from the parent to this office. The ending includes my thoughts on the matter.
 
"Also, I wanted to clarify what a "practice player" is and what our, the coaches, plans for the practice players. Right now we have five practice players going for the last roster spot. We will train for two weeks and then at the end of the two weeks, the other coaches and I will discuss who we will give the last roster spot to. For the remaining four players that did not get a roster spot, the coaches and I will offer the player to stay on as a practice player, which means you attend practices and if we need you for a tournament/game due to other players out of town/injuries, we will be able to suit you up for that tournament/game. I am not expecting practice players to purchase jersey tops. That will be coming out of the team budget, which we will be purchasing 2 extra jersey tops. I will expect if you agree to be a practice player, for the practice player to purchase their own socks, shorts and practice shirt. Warm ups and bags will be optional for practice players. If you decide that a practice player is not something you want to do then please discuss that with me and we can assist you in finding another team to play on."
 
Can I get information on the "practice player" concept? I’m trying to educate myself on this format. Is this a common practice in youth club soccer? No one I’ve talked to has heard of this format in youth soccer before. Four players were placed in this category at the end of tryouts. A fifth player was added since tryouts in the first of March.
 
These are 15 year old boys and they are not happy and the parents are not happy either! The boys just want to be on a team. They selected a team they wanted to try out for and then they are told they have to wait and have a secondary tryout when practices start up. What I think is even worst [sic] this is a Select team, NOT a premier team. This forces the boys to decide to wait for practice to begin, and if they don’t make it they have to scramble to find another team.
 
The other issue I has is four boys went to tryout and became practice players. A fifth boy was added just recently that did not make tryouts. Again, I think this is unethical and unfair to the four boys that made it to tryouts and still want a shot to be on this team.
 
Shouldn’t the coach finalize his decision so that boys can move on and look for other teams to play on? Keeping them in limbo is not fair to them and stereo-types [them] with the rest of the team. I always believed youth soccer is for player development but watching my nephew go through this and hearing the parents’ frustrations, I question the coaches and club’s mission for positive player development.
 
What a short-sighted idea. This is like a pro team buying up players that they don’t really plan to play, but they don’t want the other teams in the league to have them. It means the kids sit on the bench and never have the fun of actually playing soccer. It strikes me as a procedure with only the club’s bottom line in mind. The situation is absurd and has no place in youth soccer or youth sports in general. I like that the coach offers to help find another team for those who do not want to be a practice player, and I think that should be the first step for any player who doesn’t make the cut onto the first team. Find or create another team for these kids!
 
And that ladies and gentlemen is one of the shorter answers you’ll ever get out of me.
The real bottom line – LET THE KIDS PLAY!

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Taking the heat

Susan Boyd

Recently, temperatures across the United States have hit triple digits in many areas. Even though many states don’t run their soccer leagues in the summer there are still tournaments held. It is important to recognize the safest approach to playing soccer in the heat and to always err on the side of safety.
 
Hydration will always be a significant part of staying healthy while playing in the summer. Discuss with your coach the idea of stopping games to have hydration breaks; then let the coach get the referees on board. If you are playing 45 minute halves then stop around 22 minutes to allow a five minute cool-down break. If the halves are shorter, players can still benefit from a quick break to rehydrate and rest. Explain to players the warning signs of dehydration – dizziness, weakness in the muscles, cramping, and nausea. If they experience any of these they should sit down and call the referee. Young players often don’t understand the seriousness of dehydration and heat exhaustion and older players attempt to play through the symptoms not wanting to seem like they are weak or letting down the team. Yet every summer we read about players who either end up in the hospital or worse — die from heat related problems. It’s a serious problem which can be addressed so it is always better to deal with symptoms immediately. Be sure players understand the importance of building up fluids before a game, replacing them during the game, and then taking in additional fluids after the game. The battle between water and sports drinks is something experts will always have, but they all agree that whatever fluid you choose, you need to drink enough. I suggest you keep a case of drinks in your trunk. You’d be surprised how many kids arrive at games being played in high heat without any drinks. Finally, get a drum water container and assign someone at each game to be responsible for filling it. It doesn’t need to be ice water – in fact ice water could cause stomach cramps – but it will be a way for kids to drink or even toss some water over their heads.
 
The next factor in avoiding heat related harm is staying as cool as possible. Shade is very important. The team might consider chipping in to purchase a shade tent you can get at Sam’s Club or Costco. One parent could be in charge of transporting it to games and setting it up over the benches. Provide the team with two or three spray bottles to spray faces, necks, arms, and tops of heads. Helping the natural cooling ability of sweat will minimize the internal storage of heat. Another thing the team can provide is a cooler filled with ice water and cheap wash cloths that players can place on the backs of their necks to help cool them off. There is a product called Frogg Toggs which are shammies with the same purpose but at a higher cost. You can buy a pack of wash cloths at a discount store for the price of one Frogg Togg. Whatever you choose to do, the important thing is to have the cool cloths available for the players. They can throw them on during breaks in the game and get a good cool down.
 
Finally, don’t forget the sunscreen. Players can stay hydrated and cool and still end up with a really bad sunburn which can make them just as sick as getting dehydrated or overheated. Like fluids, I suggest keeping a supply of sunscreen in the car. It’s an easy item to forget. No matter your skin type everyone needs sunscreen. Don’t expect cloud cover to make sunscreen unnecessary. Those UV waves are not stopped by clouds in the sky. Make it a habit to cover all skin with sunscreen every time you go to a game. Don’t forget the ears, nose, and back of the neck. A lot of the time we cover arms and legs and end up with those other delicate areas getting burned because we neglect them. There have been recent reports that many sunscreens are actually toxic and can cause cancer themselves. The Skin Cancer Foundation (skincancer.org) has studied and come to the conclusion that the ingredients oxybenzone and retinyl palmitate are safe when used as directed. In addition, they recommend for kids a sun protection factor (SPF) of 30 or higher and a broad spectrum sunscreen that protects against both UVA and UVB rays. Remember that even sunscreens that advertise as water-resistant need to be reapplied after 80 minutes in the water or activities with lots of sweating.
 
All of these suggestions can apply to fans as well. Even though you aren’t running doesn’t mean you can’t suffer from dehydration, heat exhaustion, and sunburn. Take these guidelines to heart and keep yourself safe from heat-related maladies. Playing in summer’s unforgiving heat and sun doesn’t mean you and your kids have to end up miserable or sick. Take some precautions, watch out for signs of trouble, and take enough breaks to hydrate and cool down.

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Only One Instrument

Susan Boyd

My youngest son Robbie ran into the mother of a middle-school classmate the other day. The classmate had played soccer into high school and her younger brother had also been a soccer player. The mom was shocked that Robbie was still playing. "Hasn’t your body worn out?" Seems that Bridget had had multiple knee problems and Connor had a raft of injuries as well. Eventually they just couldn’t play any longer. It’s a story I hear quite often. Both of my sons have avoided major injury. Robbie broke a foot bone in middle school and then had an ankle strain last year. Bryce broke his hand, but was back playing three weeks later (don’t tell his hand surgeon!). So what makes some kids literally wear out and others keep going like a soccer energizer bunny?

Obviously genetics plays a role. Some people are put together with less elasticity and end up tearing, rupturing and breaking without much provocation. There are things they can do to improve their mobility and stability, but ultimately they are prisoners of their construction. Overcoming an unforgiving body may require serious surgeries and long periods of recuperation. Pitcher Chris Capuano had two Tommy John surgeries and is 9-2 this year, but he’s an exception and the jury is still out if he will be able to sustain his good health. For the most part, athletes have to have a lucky combination of skill, game smarts and a willing body. Lots of kids may possess the first two and strike out with the third. It’s one significant factor that prevents excellent players from continuing to play.

Every player needs to respect his or her body early in the process. That means following a regimen that maximizes the body’s health. While most youth players won’t be moving on to college or professional ranks, it never hurts to grow up with a body that will allow for significant activity well into middle age. Since kids aren’t going to independently latch onto healthy body training and upkeep, it’s up to us parents to help the process along. As our kids grow, they will hopefully have developed habits which will maintain their body strength and flexibility. Likewise if they have any injury they will have the ability to heal quickly, minimizing the stress on their body and absence from training.

First and foremost, eating healthy provides bones, muscles, ligaments, lungs and heart to be at their peak level. Starting kids on fruits and vegetables as early as possible means they develop not only the habit of eating them, but also the taste buds that enjoy them. Using fruits and vegetables as rewards teaches kids to associate pleasantly with cucumbers rather than seeing them as the enemy. Focus on protein-rich foods as opposed to carbohydrates. While we need carbohydrates in a balanced diet, most kids eat nearly twice the recommended daily allowance. Make carbohydrate choices which offer some fiber such as whole grain breads, brown rice, oatmeal and whole wheat pasta. Most nutritionists say that a well-balanced diet provides all the necessary vitamins, minerals, and nutrients a child needs. Most supplements are an expensive way to get what a good meal provides on its own. Certain vitamins such as A and D can actually be toxic if the dosage is too high. Eating healthy also means hydrating properly. No matter the temperature, level of exercise, or age, all children need to drink during activity. So be sure to hand that water bottle to your child as she sprints to the field.

Preparing the body for exercise is extremely important in maintaining the proper flexibility, stamina and protection. I rarely see teams of 6 to 9 year olds warming up and cooling down before and after a practice or a game. Older teams will often skip the cool down as everyone is anxious to leave the field and get home. But experts tell us that these two activities do more to protect the ligaments, muscles, heart and lungs of young bodies than any other training. Dynamic stretches in which the players progress in slow controlled movements through the full range of motion were established in research by P. J. McNair (2000) and D. Knudson (2001) to be the most appropriate exercises for the warm up. By contrast, they found that static stretches are more appropriate for the cool down. Warming up reduces stiff muscles, allows for more oxygen in the muscles, brings the heart slowly up to an exercise rate, increases blood flow to and through the muscles, and stretches out muscles and ligaments slowly rather than with sudden movement. Cooling down removes lactic acid from the muscles which helps reduce cramping and sudden contractions, reduces the pooling of blood in the extremities which can lead to dizziness and fainting, allows the heart to return slowly to its resting rate and protects against delayed onset of muscle soreness (DOMS) which can come from erratic contractions and ultimately injure the muscles. Clubs should require full warm-ups and cool-downs for ALL teams for both practices and games. Appropriate exercises can be found online at a number of websites such as bettersoccercoaching.com, soccerxpert.com, and footy4kids.co.uk.  If your coach doesn’t do these pre-and post-soccer event exercises, then print off a few and bring them to him.

Listen to what your kid says about his body. Kids seem to be born with a preternatural ability to be hypochondriacs, but they are the best judges of how they feel. One thing to watch out for in particular is DOMS (see above) which could be a red flag for muscle problems. If your child seems to be fine after a game but one or two days later complains of intense muscle pains it could indicate over training or large muscle tissue damage. This should be checked out by a doctor and the player should stop training. Pay close attention to complaints about knees and ankles. Sometimes kids will talk about how their knees feel like they are weak or could pop apart. That could indicate damaged ligaments and/or tendons. Girls seem to be particularly prone to anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) tears. However, there are exercises that players of any gender can begin early on to both strengthen the ACL and other knee support material (see livestrong.com and aclinjurypro.com). Choosing the right cleats can also help reduce stress on the ACL when running and turning. Less common but linked to ACL is the medial collateral ligament (MCL). Exercises to strengthen the knee in general will definitely improve the health of both the ACL and MCL. Knee pain during exercise along with a popping or clicking in the knee could indicate a medial meniscus tear. Often once the exercise is over, the pain disappears, although there may be swelling of the knee. Again this needs to be checked out by a physician. Finally, ankles take a great deal of abuse during soccer so heed any ankle pain your child experiences. There are a number of tendons which can become inflamed and then irritated by rubbing over the bones during exercise. The best treatment for this tendonitis is rest and ice treatment which is to put an ice bag on for around 15 minutes, remove, allow the area to warm up and then repeat it three to four times for the first two days after the injury. If the pain persists a doctor’s visit is in order.

Eating right, preparing properly for exercising, doing exercises to strengthen body parts integral to the sport and listening to aches and pains don’t have to wait until a child has decided to focus on soccer. These actions should begin before any player even sets foot on the pitch and continue throughout his or her life. You can’t change genetics, but you can help overcome genetics through some well-implemented lifestyle decisions that we parents have to begin for our children. It will never be enough that our kids have talent because they have to perform through the instruments of their bodies. If their bodies fail them, then all the talent in the world won’t move them ahead. Giving them the opportunity to play has to go hand in hand with teaching them how to maintain the equipment needed to play.

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Clearly Confusing

Susan Boyd

When Jimmy Kimmel placed colanders on the heads of seven year olds and convinced them the apparatus let him know when they were lying, he showed the natural trust and unsophisticated view of the world these youngster had. Such naiveté goes hand in hand with the lack of knowledge that comes from inexperience. While we parents could see immediately that their head gear was not a truth machine but a common kitchen tool, the kids had no frame of reference and readily accepted what the adult they looked up to told them. It’s not really so different with soccer. We parents, even those of us with limited soccer experience, have learned the vocabulary of soccer. But we understand far more than our kids do. So when we try to communicate using that vocabulary, it can lead to some serious frustration and misunderstanding.

 In general, teams don’t deal with the offside rule until U12 or U13. Yet parents continually want to point out to referees that they missed the offside call. Of all the rules in soccer, I think offside can be considered the most confusing, which is why it is all but ignored until players are older. There are two aspects to the offside rule. Most of us understand the first one that you can’t be beyond the last defender when the ball is passed. Of course, we naturally argue about where a player was when the ball was passed. The second aspect of the offside rule we often forget or don’t notice is that a player who is in an offside position and moves to an onside position can’t be the first to receive a pass from a teammate. So what happens when we parents choose to point out offside for our younger players? Total confusion! At one Under-8 game a parent was admonishing his son that he was standing offside. "Get onside," he bellowed. His son threw him a bewildered look, which the parent totally ignored and repeated, "Get onside," as if saying it twice would suddenly provide the young player with an instant definition. Again the boy looked at his father and this time totally deflated with frustration shot back, "I do want my team to win." Apparently the boy felt his dad believed he wasn’t on his team’s side. Or at least that’s the best he could come up with. So dealing with the complexities of actual offside conditions certainly wasn’t yet in his skill set. 

When ordered by her coach to get in the goal mouth, a player looked with complete confusion. After some thought, she moved herself right in front of the keeper and put her hand over the keeper’s mouth. If she couldn’t get inside it she would be darn sure no one else could! The coach had a moment of his own confusion and then burst out laughing realizing what the player had heard. In the meantime, the keeper slapped the player’s hand away, precipitating a howl of indignity. So the game had to be halted while everyone got some quick education on basic soccer terms, and some hurt feelings got pacified.

When we see some obvious plays that could improve the efforts of our child’s team, we tend to shout out instruction. Naturally we shouldn’t, and naturally we do. It’s hard not to resolve the problems we see that could be helped by a simple adjustment. Nevertheless, we should leave all that to the coaches. One game a player was constantly losing the ball to the defender the moment it arrived on his foot. Parents, seeing this happen time and again, decided to helpfully point out to him, "Screen the ball." When these admonishments did nothing to change the player’s behavior, the parents began to demonstrate on the sidelines by turning their bodies, spreading their arms and looking down at their feet. This odd behavior coupled with continued pleas to "Screen the ball" left the poor player totally perplexed. When he next received the ball he jammed his arm out right into the stomach of the defender, which pushed the defender off the ball, but also earned the player a foul. When the referee told him he couldn’t use his arms to push a player away, he looked immediately at the parents on the sidelines with total venom, "Hey! Screen the ball is a penalty."  

I’ve told this story before, but I think it’s a great example of how easily miscommunication can occur when parents posses a far more sophisticated vocabulary than their tiny players. A team got a free kick just outside the box, so the coach of the defending team called over two of his players and told them, "Macy you protect the near post and Brittany you protect the far post," and he sent the girls onto the field. Macy trotted up to the goal, but Brittany quickly ran across the field to the goal at the opposite end of the field which was, of course, the "far" post.

When a player was getting several passes in the air, he was having trouble controlling them. The passes would often hit him on the chest or stomach and bounce away to a defender. Watching this happen again and again eventually gave way to uncontrolled frustration on the part of the coach. "Teddy, you’ve got to trap those air balls." With a look of total relief, Teddy nodded to his coach with a complete "thumbs up" attitude. We all awaited his immediate improvement and watched with baited breath as a pass soared overhead straight to Teddy who promptly clasped the ball against his chest with his hands, dropped it to the ground and kicked it away. When the whistle blew, Teddy was dumbfounded. This really difficult game that required him to develop skills with his feet had just gotten easier, and now the referee insisted that in fact he couldn’t use his hands to "trap the ball." Frustration had given way to relief, and now gave way to even worse frustration with tears. "I did what you said." It would take a long, consoling sidelines conversation to rectify this miscommunication.

In the end, we parents need to keep it simple. Pass, kick, run and score should be the basic and for up through Under-9 necessary soccer vocabulary. Before you try a phrase, be sure you and the players are on the same page; that you’ve introduced the phrase to them and they understand what it means. Otherwise you all may find yourselves totally frustrated. The definition you know may not be the definition the kids create in their own minds. I once spent twenty minutes arguing with my first grade daughter that women could be doctors. She had had a career day at school and came home excited because she wanted to be a nurse. I mentioned that she could also be a doctor like her daddy, to which she stomped her foot and said, "No. Only men can be doctors and only women can be nurses." I reasoned with her, cajoled and even found myself getting angry, but she couldn’t be shaken from her conviction. Finally I pointed out a female doctor in a book and Deana responded, "She’s not a doctor; she’s called a nurse." And that’s when the light bulb went off in my head. She thought the profession was the same, but that men were called doctors and women were called nurses, just like actors and actresses. We all know how frustrating it is not to understand what’s being said or to have what we’re saying misunderstood. Our kids have enough to handle during a game just figuring out how to pass while running and how to keep from falling down while dribbling. They don’t need the added frustration of constantly feeling out of the communication loop. So if you can’t find common ground, you may end up unable to effectively shout any soccer instruction from the sidelines. Then again, you probably should leave that up to the coach anyway. 

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