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Sam's Blog is a bi-weekly addition to the US Youth Soccer Blog. Sam Snow is the Coaching Director for US Youth Soccer.

 

Changing the soccer education paradigm

Sam Snow

This presentation is thought provoking: http://www.ted.com/talks/ken_robinson_changing_education_paradigms.html. With just a little bit of extrapolation on your part you can make the connections between the youth academic environment and the youth soccer environment. As I viewed the clip these dots connected for me:
 
  • If we cannot predict the future for education or finances then what makes us think we can do so in soccer? Why do we insist on the lunacy of selecting younger and younger children for "elite" soccer? Can we show a little maturity and patience by waiting to give them that player development pathway when they are teenagers?
  • Can we embrace and use to our benefit the soccer cultural diversity we have here? Can we – should we – foster a variety of styles of play which then gives the American player versatility? Can soccer be "globalized" here? Or is it already happening despite us?
  • Is doing what we did in the past in schools the equivalent of us pursuing drills during training and joy stick coaching during matches? If we carry on with coaching in the manner of #3 passes to #5 and #7 makes an off-the-ball run to receive a pass from #5 are we really going to develop players who can think for themselves or simply be robots in pattern play?
  • If we doggedly stay with our past approaches to the youth soccer experience will children continue to drop-out of the sport? The sports structure of America was designed in an age now past. There’s an old saying that the Battle of Waterloo was won on the playing fields of Eton. Interestingly Eton College had no adult coaches. Eton students were members of the privileged who were expected to become leaders of their country. Since one of the things that leaders do is organize things, the kids were expected to organize their own games, which they did. In the United States, youth sports evolved with greater mass participation. The goal of the nation’s influence was to turn non-elite youth into "compliant factory workers" (cookie cutter soccer players). It is not surprising that youth sports in the United States started as a highly organized activity with adults in charge and kids expected to do as they were told and perform on command. In many ways, things have not changed all that much.
  • The comment on social structure in the presentation might correlate to our super clubs or volunteer clubs. Are they not a sport infrastructure of a fledgling soccer nation – not the one we are today?
  • In our current mode are the smart people the elite players, coaches, referees and administrators and the non-smart people the recreational masses? Do we have players in the non-smart group who could grow into talent?
  • Boring stuff = drills at training sessions and kick-n-run tactics at matches. All reflective of pouring the game into children like Ritalin. Letting the game grow naturally is messy and takes longer, but I think we improve the average player in this way.  In the words of Rinus Michels if you want to improve the élite player then raise the level of the average player.
  • Is the aesthetic experience the ‘beautiful game’?
  • Is not so much of what goes on in youth soccer the factory line approach? If instead we take a somewhat more "artistic" approach we could produce creative players.

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Food for thought for soccer leaders

Sam Snow

OK, after I watched this video the educator in me took over and it strikes me that our decision makers, of every capacity, would benefit from viewing this clip; be those leaders at the national, state or local level.  I am sure that in one fashion or another we all will be involved in the development of the American game. So here’s the food for thought…
 
I want to share with you the latest Sir Ken Robinson talk:
http://www.ted.com/talks/sir_ken_robinson_bring_on_the_revolution.html.
 
I am enjoying this one – it helps that Sir Robinson is such an engaging speaker. I think that we should share this not only with our coaches, but our administrators too. Is not youth soccer in America at a point of needing revolution thus allowing us to evolve?
 
From what is taught in the National Youth License coaching course he touches on the Flow State Model and on the deleterious effect of drills. In paraphrasing one of his comments I see how player development is an organic process. We cannot fully predict the outcome. You can only create the conditions under which players can flourish.
 
So in watching the clip closely I feel that if one can think about the education of players, coaches, referees, administrators and parents in the youth soccer context as Sir Robinson speaks about academic education, then one can see the parallels to the daily environment of youth soccer.
 
The take away message from Sir Robinson’s talk is that we have to recognize that human flourishing is not a mechanical process, it's an organic process. You cannot predict the outcome of human development; all you can do, like a farmer, is create the conditions under which they will begin to flourish. I believe that this is the approach we should take in our efforts to impact the continuing development of participants in youth soccer.

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Playing Up

Susan Boyd

Every season, teams face the question of if they should allow kids to play up. When youth players show promise, parents and coaches put pressure on clubs to allow those kids to move up a year, or even two years, in the training ranks. Having been on both sides of this issue, I can clearly say there is no right answer. The problems with playing up can overshadow the advantages. In really small clubs, teams often don’t have a choice but to offer opportunities for better players to help fill out older teams. But most clubs have enough kids to fill teams at the appropriate age levels, so bumping players up would only be done under special circumstances. Naturally, all parents believe their child is worthy of those special conditions. Before you buy into playing up as an appropriate choice for your child, consider some of the significant factors that will impact that choice.
           
Some coaches argue that playing up for a strong player will only make that player stronger. Getting that tougher competition, being on a team whose players have an additional year of experience, and having a higher standard to meet can be the elements that improve your child’s play. However, competing at that level could also be overwhelming pressure for a young psyche. If your child is shy, cries easily, doesn’t deal with disappointment well and/or seems attached to friends on his/her present team, then your child is probably not mature enough to play up. Even though a player might exhibit excellent skills beyond his or her age level, the player may not be emotionally ready to handle that advancement. If the youngster holds back or begins to dread attending practice, then it won’t matter how advanced his or her skills are.
           
You also need to consider size. Younger players are often smaller than their year older counterparts. They may also not be as aggressive and risk injury, even if their size is appropriate for the older ages. Being smaller can make a move up intimidating, which would make a child hesitant to play, even fearful. When Robbie played up, size was an important factor because he is already on the lower end of the height chart. Luckily, his first experience playing up was with his entire U-10 team, so he was within the size margins of his fellow teammates even if he met much larger players during games. Nevertheless, I had plenty of heart in the throat moments as he got tackled to the ground. The entire team had to deal with lots of disappointment as it couldn’t always keep up, but the coach did it because he wanted the kids to play on a full field. This was the transition period to small-sided teams, and he didn’t want this particular team to be split up for a year and then get back together for a full team.
           
That’s another major consideration in playing up. Now the standard for teams is small-sided until U-12. For U-8, there are four players on the field and no goalkeeper. At U-9, there are five players on the field with one being the goalkeeper. U-10 has six players on the field with one being the goalkeeper. By U-11, you will find eight players on the field with one being the keeper. At each level the field size increases until, finally, at U-12 teams have a full complement of 10 players on a full field with the 11th player being a goalkeeper. Some recreational teams will continue to play with eight players, but if you are considering your child playing up you are probably looking at a select team. The advantages of playing on a larger field with more players would be growing the endurance for large field play, tactical understanding of full team formations and learning a position.  The downside would be the inability to keep up or learn complicated tactics and skills, as well as being locked into a position before exploring all the choices.
           
If your child showed a propensity for mathematics, he or she may not be ready to skip up to the next grade in the other subject matters. It might be better to just get accelerated math classes and stay at the same grade level. That’s also true with soccer. It might be best to get some private coaching to work on the abilities your child has without assuming that he or she is ready to move up to faster and bigger team play. If your child happens to be big for his or her age, it’s possible that size is becoming a far too significant part of the decision to play up. Bigger players often look very skilled because they can bulldoze their way through players to the goal. However, in truth they haven’t developed advanced skill levels and a strong understanding of advanced team tactics. Therefore, playing up is being driven by incorrect factors. The best choice for most players is to stay at their appropriate age level so they can learn the skills and tactics necessary to surge ahead. If they play up, they may actually end up getting left behind because coaches assume they already know how to do a step-over, shield the ball or perform a proper header. If they don’t get the training necessary for the skills they haven’t yet developed, they may never get it, leaving them ironically worse off.
           
Most importantly, be sure that your decision to have your child play up isn’t being driven by ego. Parents often feel that their children are being short-changed if a peer gets the nod to play up, but their child doesn’t. It’s natural for us to ask, "What’s wrong with my kid?" We don’t want our kids to miss out on any opportunity that might give them a better chance to move up the soccer ladder. That’s why we have to be ruthlessly realistic about our child’s abilities and whether or not playing up would augment those abilities. We absolutely resisted Robbie playing up at U-13 because he hadn’t grown very much and most of his peers were bigger and stronger. Add another year of growth with U-14 players, and Robbie would have been dwarfed. However, at U-14 he did try out for a U-15 team, and then decided on his own not to play up because his team was very strong and already playing at a top level. It was a great choice for him. He did have a player on his team who was playing up, played for the U-17 Men’s National team and now plays for the MLS. Robbie wasn’t up to that level at all.
           
In smaller communities, playing up can be a way for players to get the competition and training they might not get at their age level. Overall, I would caution parents to err on the side of temperance. Kids who play up need to have strong maturity and skill. Make sure you evaluate your child properly. Don’t be jealous of players who are playing up. Understand that they may well be struggling, losing playing time to older, stronger players and feeling overwhelmed. Players who advance to high school, college and even the pros aren’t necessarily players who spent their lives playing up an age level. Most played at their age level and made the choice to find the most competitive teams and leagues rather than playing with older teammates. Be sure to consider training like the Olympic Development Program or a Developmental Academy team to insure that your child plays at the top levels. Ask if your club participates in Regional League, National League, Kohl’s American Cup, President’s Cup and the National Championship Series. Look at the team’s tournament schedule to determine how competitive it hopes to be. Does it play in Premier League in your state? All of these choices can create a strong environment both for advancing individually in soccer and for getting noticed by college coaches.
           
Playing up ultimately doesn’t affect much in your child’s soccer future in terms of how college coaches view him or her. Coaches are far more interested in how skilled a player is, how well a player understands various team formations and can function within those formations, and how passionate he or she is about soccer. Therefore, the choice to play up should be based on factors that can’t be found in your community in other ways. If you do decide to have your child play up, keep a close watch on how that choice affects the child’s play and temperament. If your child seems to be faltering, then reconsider the decision. No matter what you decide, make sure the choice is equal parts your child’s and yours. Don’t dictate. Remember that once you sign on to a team, your child is committed for at least one season and possibly a year. So proceed with care.

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Releasing the Pressure

Susan Boyd

I’m watching leaves scatter by the thousands and birds crowding my feeder as they stock up for either migration or a long winter’s nap. So I know fall is here even if I didn’t hear every weather prognosticator saying so. Fall soccer is my favorite time of the year, despite having to bundle up to enjoy the experience in Wisconsin. I love the crisp air, the bright colors and the sunlight with a glistening glow that seems to reflect off the leaves, grass and clouds to give an ambient soft light to everything. The kids are energized by the cool temperatures and brilliant beauty of the season. So they play with a stronger spirit and a bit more joy.
 
When I watch those 8, 9 and 10-year-olds cavorting on the field, it’s hard to believe that soccer would ever become a "business" for these kids. Often times that inclination comes from the parents. It’s natural to feel both pride in and hope for our children. We have watched professional sports long enough to believe that making it as an athlete is the answer to a lot of prayers. Multimillion dollar contracts, endorsement deals and fame look like a pretty enticing package for our kids to achieve. When a child makes three goals in one game or gets a particularly supportive report from the coach, it can set off the ambition to push for higher and higher achievement. The risks of pressuring our children are plenty.
 
First, there are the statistics that work against your child going on to college and professional soccer. There are currently 18 million soccer players in the U.S., of which 3.8 million are kids 6 to 18 years old. High school students represent 302,000 players. The United States Soccer Federation has 2,600 professional players listed. It takes only a calculator to figure out that of all the soccer players in the U.S., only .014 percent are professionals. Additionally, out of all the youth players, only .07 percent make it to the pro ranks. For boys, just 5.7 percent of high school seniors will end up playing for an NCAA team at any division level, and many will be gone after the first year (site1063.tmpdomain.com/tunnel/proplayer.htm).
 
If I told you those were the odds of your child becoming a doctor or a civil engineer, I suspect you would suggest they try for another career. Yet we continue to expect our child to beat the odds and move into those rarified ranks, based solely on a good showing in a tournament or being the best player on his or her team. Even players who do get the accolades during their youth career falter when they get to college. It’s a different level of competition, filled with players who have had success at the same or a higher level. Many players can’t keep up athletically or quit because they were used to being No. 1 and aren’t any longer. Add on the academic demands and players can find themselves ineligible due to grades or stressed out by juggling both soccer and studies.
 
Second, kids just want to have fun. Pressuring them to have goals that are either unrealistic or too far in the future to require immediate attention can completely suck the fun out of the experience. Once the fun leaves, the kids will often follow. Who wants a job at age 9 or even age 12? I have seen far too many youngsters slogging away on the pitch who would rather be playing piano or attending space camp, but because they showed an affinity for soccer, their parents insist on them striving for the top. Their athleticism might take them higher, but their spirit will be squelched. On the other hand, there are players who love the game but feel too much stress because of parental pressure. We parents need to remember our children’s achievements have to be based on their own passions. Both my sons play soccer with passion for the game. Bryce strives to be a professional player while Robbie is content to play college soccer and then hopefully go on to medical school. Robbie’s deeper passion is his interest in science and medicine; Bryce’s deeper passion is for soccer. Hopefully both boys will achieve their dreams. But it is important to recognize these are their dreams, not mine.
           
Finally, kids pushed to do anything can ultimately suffer psychological harm. There is a difference between pressing and encouraging. If players are the stars of their team, we must be careful of how we express our pride. When the player experiences triumph after triumph, an arrogance fed by the parent’s vanity ends up negatively affecting the player. When disappointment occurs, which it surely will, the player doesn’t have the tools to handle it. If we make our pride too overwhelming, those players can end up feeling like huge failures for what should be small dips in the road. Additionally, even the best player has to move up to compete against other strong players, and he or she may not be up to the competition. If parents push and show frustration with less stellar achievements, then kids can feel like disappointments. Instead, those players should recognize that, whatever the level, they have achieved significantly. How we handle the possible diminishing of our child’s abilities in the face of other accomplished players can make the difference between a child feeling confident and happy or insecure and miserable. We have to figure out what type of success we want our children to have. If success is to be measured in getting to the top of the soccer ladder, then most of our children will fail. But if success is to be measured by enjoying the sport — going as far as the kids’ passion takes them and creating great memories — that can truly be called the ultimate hat-trick.
 
So take in the beauty of a crisp autumn afternoon along with the beauty of your child romping with friends and call it a perfect day. These are the moments that will define a childhood. If pressure and high expectations intrude, their soccer life could be a series of moments they will resent. Let our players guide us rather than we managing them. If they really enjoy soccer and feel they can succeed, then they will choose to push themselves. We can let them take the lead and in the meantime just savor the experience.

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