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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.

 

Build Culture Excellence

Sam Snow

Occasionally I am asked questions about the club environment. Most of those questions are about problems such as dealing with belligerent coaches or the blind eye that club administrators turn when a team is winning but deeper life lessons are not being taught.

Sometimes though, the question is about how can our club improve what we are doing? Here's one such question that came across my desk.

How would you help build and create a culture of excellence? E.g. training, uniforms, standards, expectations?

I think the culture begins with the leaders in the club.  That will be the top administrators and coaches, and certainly having the full board of directors on board is a major plus; they must walk the talk, so to speak, when it comes to the club's mission statement and philosophy.  The next most important group to get on track to create a culture of excellence is the parents.  There is no doubt this is challenging and a never-ending aspect of the culture, but in the end it is the most important.  The parents influence all others in the club; players, coaches and administrators – in that order.

Working with the parents regarding the sporting experience of children though is an area still largely ignored by clubs. Most still believe the priority for their efforts is player development. That once was the case, but not today. The reality is that the number one priority is education of the soccer parent. That education is not necessarily about the tactics of the game or the rules for the age group. It certainly isn't about how to raise children. No, it's about the environment at matches, the either positive or infamous ride home, the understanding of the long term goals of youth soccer participation and it's about the management of adult expectations of the return on investment. It is about being a supportive group for the youth soccer experience. Clearly the majority of parents fall into exactly that category as evidenced by the large numbers of young people playing the game all across our nation. The Parents section of the US Youth Soccer website has quality resources for clubs and parents: /parents/. I encourage you to take advantage of the free materials and guidance there.

For a culture of excellence then to be understood and embraced by the club members the leaders must LEAD. Begin that endeavor by following these objectives of leadership. An interesting way to think about leadership in a succinct manner:

Leadership Characteristics:
-           Take accountability for results
-           Create direction and focus
-           Set the bar high
-           High energy level
-           Always willing to try new things
-           Unleash energy and talent in operations
-           Self-driven
-           Prioritize speed

Some of these elements become challenging when they are out of our direct control.  For those that are in our control, we can embrace them as they help us make forward strides and have significant impacts.

I'll close with one of my favorite passages from a quality sports leader which is taught in the National Youth License coaching course.

"There are many people, particularly in sports who think that success and excellence are the same thing and they are not the same thing. Excellence is something that is lasting and dependable and largely within a person's control. In contrast, success is perishable and is often outside our control… If you strive for excellence, you will probably be successful eventually… People who put excellence in first place have the patience to end up with success… An additional burden for the victim of the success mentality is that he/she is threatened by success of others and resents real excellence. In contrast, the person fascinated by quality is excited when he/she sees it in others."

Joe Paterno – Penn State football coach – 1990
 

Reinventing the ball

Sam Snow

Recently Mike Woitalla, executive editor of Soccer America, wrote an article in Youth Soccer Insider on reinventing the ball. The article talks about using different types of balls in training to help players improve their feel for the ball. The article opens with these lines: "It seems to me that playing soccer with different kinds of balls is good for children's skill development. I don't have scientific evidence for this, but a lot of anecdotes from great players."
 
US Youth Soccer agrees with the use of different types of balls in training to help players developing better skills.  We advocate this approach in the 'street soccer' portion of the National Youth License.  We also talk about playing these training games sometimes on different surfaces which affects the bounce and roll of the ball.  We teach coaches that occasionally using different types of balls and/or playing on a different surface will improve players visual perception of the way a ball rolls, bounces, spins and moves through the air.  That variety broadens and deepens players' skills at reading the movement of the ball and the skills then to control or propel it.  While as coaches we came to this practice through educated experience and the results are anecdotal, there are theories from physical education supporting the approach.
 
  • Principle of Variable Practice:  Block practice aids performance while variable practice aids in learning.  Variable practice causes an increase in attention.  The variables in this case are the type of ball being used or the type of surface on which the game is taking place or both for more advanced players.

  • Principle of Feedback:  Internal and external sources of information about motor performance are essential for learning to take place.  The immediate feedback the player receives here is from the action of the ball when received or propelled by the player.

  • Principle of Skill Improvement:  The development of motor skills progresses along a continuum from least mature to most mature.  The rate of progression and the amount of progress within an individual depends upon the interaction of nature and nurture.  We know from both practical experience and research on skill acquisition that variable practice accelerates skill development.  This is especially important in soccer where the game conditions change constantly – hard field, muddy field, strong wind, no wind, quality of ball in the match, etc.

  • Principle of Transfer:  The more identical two tasks are the greater the possibility that positive transfer will occur.  Practice conditions should match the conditions in which the motor skill is going to be used.  By using different types of balls in small-sided games in training transference is more likely into matches.

  • Principle of Practice:  Practicing the motor skill correctly is essential for learning to take place.  Some coaches will think this principle supports a more assembly line approach to learning skills, but the opposite is true.  The variety of practice in the environment of small-sided games and different types of balls mimics the multitude of variations a player will face in a match.  Yes most training should occur with the proper soccer ball for the age group.  However the use of other types of balls takes skill acquisition a step further and truly challenges players in a fun way.

  • Principle of Interest:  A player's attitude toward learning a skill determines for the most part the amount and kind of learning that takes place.  Using different types of balls and sometimes playing in different environments or on different surfaces will grab youngsters attention and give them fun new challenges.

  • Principle of Whole–Part Learning:  The complexity of the skill to learn and the player's ability determines whether it is more efficient to teach the whole skill or break the skill into component parts.  We advocate a games-based approach to learning skills so that the players can connect when and how to use a particular skill to the situation in the game.  For example, the type of ball being used in the training game will be a determining factor to make a short or long pass, or no pass at all, or just dribble and/or shield. Variety is the spice of exciting and challenging training sessions.  Using different types of balls in training is one way to create a good learning environment for young players.

Take a look at the US Youth Soccer DVD Skills School – developing essential soccer techniques. There is also an accompanying document, Skills School - Fundamental Ball Skills, for your use.

 

Camp Roulette - Thinking about Summer Camps

Susan Boyd

While I am celebrating the thermometer's rise to 41 degrees, I have to do so amidst snow and ice covering the major portion of the landscape. So it's difficult to think about filling out the summer camp applications. But they are already arriving. I have had three come via email and another two come in snail mail, so the floodgates should be opening soon. Even if you are experienced in sorting through the possibilities, they seem to multiply exponentially. Suddenly that simple decision that you based on cost and dates now explodes into manifold factors from skill levels to friends attending to coaching levels. We don't want our kids to miss out on that "once-in-a-lifetime" opportunity that might mean being scouted by an English Premier League coach or recruited by a top college program.
         
The first thing anyone should do is decide on a budget then rule out any camp that exceeds that budget. It's so easy to be seduced by a glossy brochure with pictures of happy players against a rich green pitch gazing fondly at a silver-haired coach who looks like he comes from central casting. It makes us wish we could go to camp and let the kids stay home. Declaring a budget also makes it clear to your children that they can't ask for pipe dreams – camps in Argentina or becoming a youth soccer ambassador to New Zealand. If an international camp appeals to your family but you can't afford it now, those options are available every year, so make a plan about how to save for this goal. Decide how much your child will be responsible for. You could do a matching fund where every dollar your kid saves you'll match. You also could involve grandparents to pledge some money towards this opportunity. However you choose to finance the expensive camps, it's not a bad idea to ask your child to invest in the expense as well.
         
Once you have the budget, then you can start deciding on the type of camp you want to attend. The options are overwhelming. Besides the opportunity to play soccer out of the country, there are camps dedicated to specific field positions, camps for boys only, camps for girls only, camps directed by famous coaches, camps sponsored by local clubs, camps sponsored by colleges, high schools, and civic organizations, overnight camps, day camps, camps offered by professional teams, camps that provide the opportunity to be looked at by overseas coaches, camps run by former National Team players, camps promising college scholarships, nutrition camps, camps sponsored by sportswear manufacturers, camps sponsored by sports drinks and camps that focus on fitness. You and your child need to decide what you want from a camp in order to narrow down where you apply. Make a list of what your ideal camp experience would be, and then pour through the options to find the best matches.
         
For those in elementary and middle school the local camps usually offer the best matches. You can use summer camps as a way to check out other clubs in the area or keep a strong tie to your present club. Most US Youth Soccer Association state association websites will provide a list of camps offered by member clubs. This is a great resource to begin your search. You can also use a search engine to locate local camps by searching your city and the phrase "summer soccer camps." If you are lucky enough to have a professional soccer club in your area then check out their camps. These camps are usually staffed by high school and college age soccer players, but include one or two professional players. It's great fun for a young player to have an idol teaching her how to dribble a ball! These camps can provide a T-shirt, ball, and water bottle emblazoned with the team logo, so there's some long term bragging rights attached to the experience. Both my boys grew up spending summers at the Milwaukee WAVE camps, and now my grandkids have continued the tradition.
         
The other factor for the youngest campers will be friends. Check out with other families where they are considering sending their kids. It's always the most fun to share a camp with good buddies, plus it helps with carpooling! Some parents also may have some good advice on camps based on experiences with their older kids. Use the sideline time this spring to find out what camps they liked or didn't like and why. Personal testimony beats the marketing blurbs in the brochures. 
         
Check out some of the intangibles with camps as well. For example do the camps have contingency plans for bad weather, especially thunderstorms?   What process do they use to contact parents in case of emergency? What is the ratio of staff to campers? What insurance do they carry for both liability and injury? How long has the camp been running? What is their policy on weather-related cancellations? Do they address the issue of differing skill levels at the same ages? Is the camp a member of any recreational organization or licensed by any organization? How is their staff screened?   What safety does the camp provide at its site (i.e. fences separating fields from busy roads or water features)? Do they offer any credits or reimbursement for unforeseen reasons to miss the camp (death in the family, extended illness)? Can they deal with medical conditions such as asthma attacks and allergic reactions?
         
For older campers the situation becomes less about finding a camp that offers fun with friends and more about finding a camp that can advance a player's abilities. The big question for most high school players is whether or not they should attend a college camp in the hopes of being recruited. College camps can be very expensive and are filled with hundreds of campers hoping for the same brass ring. My experience has been that few if any kids are "discovered" at a college camp. Most coaches rely on watching players at tournaments in the context of their teams to make decisions on players they want to recruit. Often players who have contacted a school receive an invitation to their camp.   Don't read too much into this. Every player who has ever emailed a coach has had his or her email placed in a mailing list for camp. On the other hand, if a player has been in serious discussions directly with a coach, initiated by the coach, who asks the player to attend the camp, it might be worth attending. You'll have to judge how serious the coach's interest is and how the expense fits into your family's budget. On the other hand, I do encourage good players to consider attending college sponsored camps because they can give you exposure to the level of play necessary to succeed at college and if the camp includes more than one college, then you'll get a bigger bang for your buck.
         
Older players should also consider camps that focus on fitness training. While developing skills and improving on team tactics remains the primary reason for going to a summer camp, players can benefit from training that isn't soccer centered. Most coaches will agree that teams that have the best fitness have the best chance to get that late game goal or prevent one. It's the players who falter over time due to lack of conditioning who hurt a team's ability to be a winner. Therefore, a fitness or conditioning camp may be a good idea. These should be reserved for older players since younger players don't have the muscle development to endure and benefit from intense fitness training. But supplementing a skills camp with a fitness camp could be a great way to prepare for an upcoming high school or club soccer season.
         
No matter what you decide to do about camps, just be sure that you select a camp that fits the needs of your child. Don't pick a camp that demands too much from your player. The younger the child, the more the camp should focus on fun and spending some carefree time with friends, new and old.  Older players will want to use camps to advance both their skills and their chances to play soccer at a higher level. So decide what benefits the camps offer and how those benefits justify the costs. Most importantly make sure that your child is comfortable with the camp choice. If kids have fears of being away from home, you might not want to leap into an overnight camp right away or if they do better with shorter bursts of instruction consider half-day camps. Use the internet, the parent's network, and brochures at your local soccer store to discover the variety of camps available in your area. Investigate the college, club, and professional club camps that number in the thousands. After all your considerations the most important one will be is the camp enjoyable for your child. The rest will all fall in place.
 

Anything You Can Do My Kid Can Do Better

Susan Boyd

Trust Hollywood to not only pick up on but also glorify parents' desperate belief that their children are destined for superstardom.  Two years ago there was a show hosted by former child star Danny Bonaduce (not exactly a poster boy for mental health) called "I Know My Kid Is a Star" and an even more recent incarnation titled, "My Kid Is Gonna Be Famous."  I tripped over these eccentricities while watching "The Soup" which satirizes talk and reality shows.  It showed a clip of a mom nagging her daughter to point her toe while bounding across the floor in some sort of dance move.  The mother was distressed that she couldn't get her daughter to point that toe, no matter what she said, as if pointing her toe would be the difference between obscurity and fame.  Unfortunately, the mom apparently missed the important big picture – her daughter couldn't dance, pointed toe or not.
 
Such is the plight of parenting.  We want success for our children.   So we look for glimmers of that success in everything they do, as soon as they do it.  If six year old Molly figures out how to dribble to the goal our pride opens up a vista where Molly scores the winning goal in the 2024 Olympics.  No matter that Molly also "excels" at blowing bubbles and climbing trees.  Once we focus on the future we begin to orchestrate that future supplanting fun with work.  Slowly, insidiously we become that mom harping over our own "pointed toe" situation.  Our anxiety that somehow our child will fall behind in the competitive scenario overrides our common sense.   In a world that offers up Justin Bieber, Brazilian soccer prodigies, and ten year old opera singers, it's difficult not to see the same potential in our own darlings.  And there are plenty of vultures willing to encourage that dream.

This fall a Colorado company released a kit that parents can purchase to test their child's DNA specifically for the ACTN3 gene that apparently affects speed and endurance.  When studying elite athletes a group of scientists in Australia noticed that those with great speed had the R variant of the gene and those with great endurance had the X variant.  In 2004 this test was made available in Australia and has now come to America.  For $149 a parent can buy the test, take a swab of their child's mouth, and in a few weeks discover which type of sport the child should pursue.  But a study by a team at the University of Wisconsin – La Crosse of the predictability of such a test determined that many elite athletes are actually missing both variants of the gene.  And no longitudinal study has yet to be done to see if what the test predicted proved to be true for those kids who took the test.  As one researcher at UW-LC suggested, a better test would be "Just line them up with their classmates for a race and see which ones are the fastest."  That's the common sense approach.

Expensive sport's development camps make tremendous claims about their ability to take your child from hum drum to spectacular all for a price requiring a second mortgage.  Their brochures sizzle with testimonials from past attendees who went on to win the World Series or Olympic Gold.  Every parent needs to approach those claims with a skeptical eye.  While many sport's development camps can certainly improve your child's strength, endurance, and skills, they can't sell different genes.  So much of success in any venture depends on variables over which few of us have control.  If your child appears on scale to top out at 5' 4" he or she will probably not be a basketball star.  Consider the camps for what they are, not for what you hope they will be.  They are places to improve as a player; they are not places to ensure your child's place in history.  For every camper who went on to have a Super Bowl ring, 1000 went on to settle for a class ring, and that exemplary participant probably would have achieved what he or she achieved with or without the camp.

The website Wiki-How has an article titled "How to Turn Your Child into a Soccer Star" (http://www.wikihow.com/Turn-Your-Child-Into-a-Soccer-Star).  The article is actually pretty good and really has nothing to do with turning your child into a star.  But the title certainly is provocative.  Gomestic.com had a great article (http://gomestic.com/family/does-your-child-have-an-athletes-mindset/) on your child's athletic mindset which the author, T. Edward, feels is the best predictor of a child's athletic future than anything else.  He argues that if a child isn't mentally involved in the sport both on and off the field, he or she probably isn't going to excel in that sport or possibly any sport.  He argues that parents ignore their child's mindset because they are caught up in the Pro Athlete Dream State (PADS), over assessing their child's athletic ability, blinded by their own ambition.  PADS parents confront coaches about playing time, criticize their children for the most minor of mistakes, and are easily disappointed by even good results.  PADS parents exist everywhere.  We see them on the sidelines coaching every move of their kids, taking on the referees when calls aren't going their way, and greeting their child after the game with an immediate assessment of what went wrong.  If we are honest, we would admit that we have all fallen prey to the PADS label at some point in our children's lives.  We need to be able to put that behind us and become supportive, accepting parents who don't need to validate our worth by our kids' achievements.

In "The Soup" clip, I found it delightful that the child, despite the constant carping, appeared to be enjoying her leaps, twists, and frolics.  She happily continued her dance moves without regard to form and embraced the wildness of her actions.  While mom wanted perfection, daughter achieved joy.  Fame, whatever that translates to, will be on her own terms. With that yardstick, all our kids will be famous.