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Parents Blog

Susan Boyd blogs on every Monday. A dedicated mother and wife, Susan offers a truly unique perspective into the world of a "Soccer Mom." 
Opinions expressed on the US Youth Soccer Blog are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the positions of US Youth Soccer.


Basic Skills

Susan Boyd

           A quote from Mickey Mantle’s opened the film "Moneyball." "It’s unbelievable what you don’t know about the game you’ve been playing all your life." While it referred to baseball it could just as easily apply to soccer. Even the greatest players continue to refine and develop new skills. Skills build on previous skills just like any learning process. All too often coaches don’t demand that basic skills become second nature for youth players. They opt instead for less repetitious and therefore less boring practice games. Retired U.S. Men’s National Team captain Claudio Reyna recognizes that "…you can’t teach skills to an old player. Youth coaches should keep in mind that individual skills need to be nurtured at an early age. Players who haven’t mastered the fundamental skills become frustrated because the game gets too difficult for them as they move into higher levels." All too often I see players on NCAA Division I teams unable to execute these basic skills. If players want to compete successfully they have to have a first touch, an ability to trap the ball, execution of a safe and proper header, an understanding how to play off the ball, play equally well with both feet, be at least 90 minutes fit, possess the instinct to come to the ball and have an accurate pass both on the ground and in the air. Simple, right?
           First touch is exactly what it says. Players need the deftness to gently accept the ball on a ground pass in such a way that the ball remains close to their feet. How often have you seen a player get a pass, have it hit the foot and bounce ten feet forward where an opposing player picks it up. I argue that when people say soccer is boring it is actually because of a series of lousy first touches creates a game of ping pong without the fluid dance of a team moving the ball down the field. That dance generates the electric possibilities that put a fan’s heart in the throat. Developing that nimble first touch requires hours of. If your child plays baseball, how many infield balls are hit to the shortstop with every possible permutation of the follow-up throw? How many fly balls are hit to the outfield? Drills are an important part of development. For youth soccer, drills should take up a significant part of every practice.
           Trapping the ball is the ability to receive a ball in the air on either the chest or by literally trapping it between the foot and the ground. Few players do it right. When trapped on the chest it shouldn’t bounce off like a racquetball hitting a wall. Instead of bouncing the ball should be cushioned and slide down to the player’s feet. If trapping is done with the foot, it needs to end with the ball under the foot and on the ground, not 20 feet in front of the player. Again, the only way to make this skill second nature is for the coach to drill the players in proper methods with the goal being near perfection.
           There has been debate concerning the use of head gear to prevent concussions in soccer players and to diminish the effects that heading a ball might have. However, most players and coaches agree that learning where on the head to receive the ball and how to rotate the head properly make a header safe. Yet often players are left to instinctively develop their header technique on their own leading to injury. There are header drills that coaches can conduct to help players develop the proper techniques. 
           Movement off the ball may be even more important than what a player does with the ball. Samuel Eto’o, the talented Cameroon soccer player, stated that, "The most important thing for a forward is speed of thought. Top players read the game." Playing off the ball requires a player to consider what options are present and how to maximize those options by placing himself in the most advantageous spot. That ability to read the game is somewhat innate but can be taught with both film and drills. Here is where practice games can pay off, because the coach can stop play to discuss placement and have players reason out where they could place themselves on the field. As Mia Hamm says, "Failure happens all the time. It happens every day in practice. What makes you better is how you react to it." Players can learn how to turn negatives into positives if they begin to understand that more soccer is played without the ball. Learning to be patient, not to be a ball chaser and see possibilities will make every youth player stronger.
           Learning to play with both feet not only develops a player beyond just serviceable, but actually catapults them into the highest levels. You’ve seen players miss an open goal because they had to shift the ball to their "proper" foot giving the defense time to intervene. Or you’ve watched a ball go wildly off course because it was hit with the "wrong" foot. Playing equally well with both feet doesn’t just double a player’s value, it can quadruple it. Defensively that player can steal a ball or slide tackle from any direction. Likewise, offensively the opposing team is vulnerable from all directions when a two-footed player begins the dribble. They can’t predict where she’ll turn or how she’ll turn. Coaches can conduct drills which require players to practice with their weaker foot until they develop the strength, skill, and intuition to use both feet.
           Every practice should begin with fitness training. The average distance a soccer player travels during a typical 90 minute game is seven miles. So players need to be able to run seven miles without lagging and without fatigue. Players without a strong center of gravity will be easily pushed off the ball. Youth players probably won’t benefit from weight training, in fact it could do harm, because they are still growing and developing their muscle mass. They can benefit from learning how to brace, how to use their bodies to protect the ball and what foods will best develop those fledgling muscles. Once players are in high school they can consider adding supervised weight training.
           Kyle Rote Jr. said, "If you're attacking, you don't get as tired as when you're chasing." Learning when to come to the ball can make the difference between an attack and a chase. A player sees his teammate is going to pass to him. He sets himself up to receive the ball. Suddenly the opposing defender steps in front, steals the ball and the chase is on. Players have to learn not to root themselves in a position especially when the ball is coming to them. Often they have the mistaken idea that they are five steps closer to the goal, so running away from the goal to meet the ball is unproductive. There are drills for learning how to shield the defender from stepping in front if the player wants to stay put and drills for developing the instinct of when to step to the ball. 
           The biggest and most frustrating bugaboo of soccer is passing. Players seem to settle for being able to send the ball away from themselves but don’t seem to be overly concerned about where those passes land. Voted European Player of the Century in 1999 Johan Cryuff manages the Catalan National Team. He observed that, "Football is simple but the hardest thing to do is play simple football." Nothing shows that more than bad passing. Players make lousy choices because they complicate the process. The center of the field leads to the center of the goal, prompting players to erroneously assume the best bet is to pass down the middle. In fact only 33% of goals are made in the middle of the net. That leaves 67% on the sides. Add to this that 67% of those goals are achieved by aiming low means that players who approach from the sides and shoot low have the greatest chance of scoring. Passing into the opponents in the center lane of the pitch isn’t as effective and often leads to an opponent picking up the pass. Learning which shoulder of a receiver to send a ball over requires an understanding of the direction the player is moving and which side of her the defender is on. There are excellent drills both for developing accurate open field passing and defended passing.
           Parents should look for clubs that will develop their players by developing these skills. While playing matches is fun, it won’t correct the bad habits players have or build skills that players need. Find a club that emphasizes drills, especially in those years leading up to high school. It’s important that players can take care of the basic skills if they want to move on to the more complex aspects of the game. While these skills don’t seem all that simple, they are attainable with the necessary practice and devotion. Coaches can do only so much to give a player these skills. Like anything we learn the quality depends as much on the student as on the teacher. Manfred Schellscheidt, the German-American coach and player, makes it clear, "I don’t believe skill was, or ever will be, the result of coaches. It is a result of a love affair between the child and the ball." A player who truly wants to get better will. While drills aren’t glamorous, they do offer players a chance to move up to a more glamorous role on their team. 

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The standards you get are the standards you set

Sam Snow

I coach a soccer team made up of 13 and 14 year old boys. I have a couple of players that are "bratty." They want to do what they want; they roll their eyes when being coached or whistle when the coach is talking to them. Should I give in to them or kick them off the team?
On a number of different levels, the early teens are a challenging age group to coach. It is a normal part of this age to test and push the limits of those with authority over them – parents, teachers and yes, soccer coaches too. Nevertheless, when it comes to team behavior coaches should follow this saying, "The standards you get are the standards you set."
In this instance I would not go to either extreme of giving in to them or cutting them from the team. The next time one of them behaves inappropriately in front of the team, coaches or team manager, then immediately pull that player aside individually and address the matter directly. The head coach must make it clear to the player what behaviors are unacceptable in the culture of the team. Do not punish the player at this time. Be matter of fact in the tone you take and with your body language. Your goal here is twofold. First, you must begin to modify the player(s) behavior; and secondly, you want to keep the player(s) in the team. If the player(s) act out again during that training session or match, then remind the player of what had just been discussed. Be consistent in your expectations of the players. But don’t harp on it either. Don’t take the misbehavior personally—it is kids testing limits. That testing is sometimes a youngster’s way of finding out if this adult authority figure really does care about them.
If the inappropriate behavior continues after a week or two of the coach addressing it directly with the player, then ask the parents to be involved in the next discussion with the player. Ask the parents to support mature behavior by their child so that it benefits the team, respects the staff and aids in the growth of the player.
If the behavior still does not improve, involve the club director of coaching and/or the club president in the discussion with the player and parents. After that step is taken and if the misbehavior continues then, the club makes the decision to release the player from the club. This is the final step and hopefully all options have been exhausted before dropping a youth player. Our overarching goal in all of youth soccer must be to keep kids in the game for a lifetime.
I think another analysis of the inappropriate behavior should be reflection by the coach on the training methods being used. The seed of the problem could be poor coaching and/or management of the training environment. Sometimes young players act out when the coach fails to avoid the three L’s: lines, laps and lectures. Coaches should avoid these actions during a training session. When these actions are present in a training session it is not only inefficient use of training time, but it is also boring. The kids came to training to play soccer. They did not show up to stand with the coach and talk about soccer, stand in a long line waiting to kick the ball one time and then go to the back of the line or to run laps around the field. They came to training to PLAY soccer! When coaches move away from drills in training sessions and instead use game-like activities then the players are fully engaged physically and mentally. The challenges of game-like activities and the problem solving situations they present are not only fun, but they help players develop to a higher level of soccer. Take it a step further and have the players who have been acting out to be the leaders in some of the activities. Ask them questions during the training session that cause them to think deeply about the game, give them leadership responsibilities and challenge the limits of their talents. When the abilities of these players are met with an appropriate soccer challenge then it is likely that the misbehavior will disappear.
A coach can tell the difference between a drill and an activity by using the activity checklist. Whenever you put together a lesson plan for a training session ask yourself these questions:
  • Are the activities fun?
  • Are the activities organized?
  • Are the players involved in the activities?
  • Is creativity and decision making being used?
  • Are the spaces used appropriate?
  • Is the coach’s feedback appropriate?
  • Are there implications for the game?
Soccer is easy to teach to children because many of them already know a good deal about it and many simply enjoy the sport. Simple principles, professional organization, appropriate incentives, and unlimited encouragement—-any coach worth the name can hardly fail. Even more important, he or she will gain enormous gratification from the pleasure and satisfaction gained by the children.

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Street Soccer Day

Sam Snow

September is Youth Soccer Month. A new feature of the month this year is the inaugural Street Soccer Day that will be held Wednesday, September 5th. If you have been through the National Youth License course you know that "street soccer" is a session in that coaching course. A while back one of the course candidates suggested the idea of a national street soccer (pick-up game) day. I thought it was a great idea. We have designated the first Wednesday of Fun week as Street Soccer Day. Each week of Youth Soccer Month has a different focus; in order they are: Fun, Family, Friendship and Fitness.
The plan for Street Soccer Day is for clubs all across the United States to set apart this day as one where players come in to have pick-up games. This set up can be as organized or unorganized as the club desires. Clubs can even set it up to be a Play Day (which has evolved into the Human Development program - as envisioned by Vince Ganzberg, former Technical Director for Indiana Soccer. Another way could be to simply encourage coaches to step aside at training sessions that day and let the players take charge. Regardless of how the club sets up the day, the idea is to give the game back to the players. Part of the thrill for the players is in knowing that other players just like them, all across the country, are having a game just like theirs.
Street Soccer Day will grow in time just as the idea of Youth Soccer Month has grown with state associations, clubs, high schools, colleges and professional teams. Imagine the improvement that will be made in youth soccer as the nation uniformly focuses on this day as the kick-off to a player centered soccer year. I know that for this year the notice is short, but please do all that you can to encourage teams in your club to join in the celebration of Street Soccer Day.

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Read, Think, Play

Susan Boyd

            Hope Solo’s autobiography came out last week, "Solo: A Memoir of Hope" (hardcover $15.58). There is no denying that Solo has had a tough life with abandonment, reuniting with her homeless father, being famously benched in the 2007 World Cup after posting four shut-outs, and speaking out on more than one occasion to defend herself and others. The book delivers with drama, soccer insights and family dysfunction. It probably isn’t appropriate for young soccer players, but that has been addressed with a young reader’s edition titled "Hope Solo: My Story" (hardcover $9.93). While Solo has gotten her fair share of press for her book fresh off a gold medal, there are many deserving soccer books out there for young and intermediate readers that families may not be aware of. I want to detail just a few of these that you might consider as gifts for your avid soccer player. All prices are quoted from Amazon.
            While most kids will recognize David Beckham, Landon Donovan and Lionel Messi, there are literally scores of significant soccer players that they may not know because they don’t get to see them play very often. "A Beautiful Game: The World's Greatest Players and How Soccer Changed Their Lives" (hardcover $19.79) presents 41 players from countries as diverse as Iceland, Tunisia, and New Zealand which are not exactly soccer powerhouses. However, the commonality of passion for the sport, the various impacts on the players’ lives, and the significance of the role soccer plays in the countries and families show how soccer can move beyond "just a sport." The book is divided into various sections addressing topics such as family, pride, hope and contains numerous brilliant photos.
            Most soccer is played away from the stadiums and the spotlight of notoriety. Millions play every day in the streets, alleys and fields of their respective countries without regard to mega-salaries or adulation. At 16, Gwen Oxenham was the youngest NCAA Division I athlete, serving as goal keeper for Duke University. By the time she was 23, her options for playing soccer beyond college had dried up. Looking for an adventure she set out to travel the world with her boyfriend and two other friends to find soccer where it is regularly played. The result is her book "Finding the Game: Three Years, Twenty-five Countries, and the Search for Pickup Soccer" (hardcover $17.50). Her adventures show how soccer can bridge cultures, languages and religions. She played with women dressed in traditional hijab in Tehran, in an Arab against Jew game in Jerusalem, and with a group of bootleggers in Nairobi. Over the course of her travels she learned the universality of soccer etiquette (don’t talk if no one has ever seen you play) and the universality of soccer receptiveness to strangers and friends alike. There is a companion documentary she made called "[Pelada]" (which is the Brazilian word for pickup game and literally means "naked") and it is available on Netflix.
            Many players hear from their coaches that they need to get stronger and faster if they want to advance. It’s a tough journey from knowing that change is needed and actually creating that change. Donald T. Kirkendall holds a PhD. in exercise physiology and is a member of the FIFA Medical Assessment and Research Center in Zurich. He played soccer through college and has been an assistant coach at Ball State in Indiana. His book, "Soccer Anatomy" (paperback $15.05) details dozens of excellent exercises to improve a player’s strength, stamina and speed. Each exercise is accompanied by illustrations to show which muscles are affected as well as showing how those muscles operate in playing conditions. This is the type of book a player can refer to many times over the course of his or her soccer career to continue to develop.
            I have seen thousands of youth soccer games and twenty times that in hopeful players who want to move on to higher levels including playing pro. The one factor that truly separates the most significant players from the rest isn’t athleticism. Most players who achieve success in youth soccer have great athletic abilities, but without a soccer brain they begin to find themselves falling behind. Knowing where to move off the ball, knowing your options before you even receive the ball and knowing how to create space for yourself all have more to do with brain than brawn. Part of developing a soccer brain is to be a student of the game. Studying matches on TV, going to live games and reading about soccer from top coaches will give players an edge others may not have. "Developing Game Intelligence in Soccer" (paperback $16.47) by Horst Wein, a top youth coach who has been hired to revitalize or improve the national youth soccer programs of thirty-four countries, shows through both discussion and diagrams how players can be smarter on the field. he book divides into different age and skill levels so players can progress and won’t bite off more than their developmental level permits. Youth players should open a chapter, turn on a game and follow the techniques the pros use that come from the book. Every player can benefit from a rigorous physical regimen, but he or she can also benefit from training the brain. Coaches say that if you want to win at soccer play with your brain.
            Soccer bodies need fuel to operate at top form. Often parents have no idea what is appropriate to feed our young players to give them the best edge. There are all types of advice – carbo loading, vegan, protein shakes – and we have to become our kids’ dieticians with little or no guidance except for the fad of the day. With short breaks between tournament games or a rushed dinner schedule due to practices, fast food all too often takes the place of a good meal. Without the proper fuel all the exercise in the world won’t help a player develop enough muscle and sculpting to be the best. Sports writer Gloria Averbuch and registered dietician Nancy Clark have interviewed top  professional female players and examined their food choices. They have come up with some fantastic recipes and advice for young players in their book "Food Guide for Soccer: Tips and Recipes from the Pros" (paperback $12.47). The book contains charts showing how quantities of food can be determined and equivalencies of food types. The book also shows what is optimal for soccer players as opposed to less active people and divides by age ranges. Before even getting to the recipes, the book lays out important information such as how to hydrate, what to eat before and after practices and games and how to maintain the right body weight. The recipes are fantastic and will appeal to any player’s tastes and diet. 
            These books are only a sampling of what is available out there for young soccer players who have a passion for the game. I also suggest you use these as a starting point. If you look each book up on Amazon and Barnes & Noble the websites will list other books in the same genre with the "customers who bought this also bought…" heading. Therefore, you can find dozens of books just from one of these. I didn’t include any books for kids under 10, but some titles to consider would be Matt Christopher’s "Soccer Hero," Gail Gibbons’ "My Soccer Book," Mike Lupica’ "Shoot Out," Mia Hamm’ "Winners Never Quit" and "DK Reader’s: Let’s Play Soccer" by Patricia J. Murphy. All these books are under $7. You can’t go wrong encouraging your child to read, and if they read about soccer they will be improving two important parts of their lives.

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