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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.

 

Mixed gender pick-up games

Sam Snow

A coach wrote in with this scenario: "Good afternoon, Sam. I am a member of a youth travel club which is experiencing some growing pains and differences of opinions among the board members and coaching staff.
 
The main concern, for today at least, is mixed age and mixed gender scrimmages within out club. We have had a case where a U14 boy’s team "scrimmaged" a U10 girl’s team. I use quotations on the word scrimmage as there were many restrictions on the boys with none on the girls and several coaches were present and some even on the field to supervise and ensure things did not get out of hand.
 
I would like to ask for your opinion on this. Is there any benefit that outweighs the risk of injury (both physical and psychological) to the younger players? What would be the appropriate age/gender gap for such a scrimmage?"
 
There are indeed benefits to pick-up games with mixed ages and even mixed age groups. However, the range of ages must be prudent. If the scrimmage had indeed been in the neighborhood or on the recess ground at school, the odds are good that 14-year-old boys would not have included 10-year-old girls in their game. I suggest that when coaches do arrange for a scrimmage with another age group and/or gender that they keep it within the three stages of biological growth that pertain to youth soccer.
 
1.            Childhood – 4 to 9 years old
2.            Puberty – 10 to 14 years old
3.            Adolescence – 15 to 19 years old
 
These are the general ages of each stage. Some persons will enter a stage sooner or later than their peers.
Sam

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Soccer and the World

Susan Boyd

In his ground-breaking book, "How Soccer (Football) Explains the World," Franklin Foer argues that soccer demonstrates "the failure of globalization to erode ancient hatreds in the game’s great rivalries."  Soccer exemplifies the difficulties of creating world-wide peace in the political arena. As he puts it, the tribal nature of soccer competition mirrors the tribal nature of partisan social policies and government divisions. He points to the "hooliganism" of soccer team loyalties leading to both racism and violence.  On the other hand, he also argues that the very nationalism that soccer promotes through the World Cup and various events such as the Gold Cup and the UEFA Champions’ League helps foster larger bands of allegiance that cross over the boundaries of international divisions and the larger distrust among members of disparate races, religions and political stances by bonding these groups together in support of their nation’s team or their club team with international members. There have been many critics of his conclusions and many followers who find his arguments persuasive and illuminating. When I read the book, I was impressed by the intelligence of his reasoning. Having watched soccer since 1967 when I moved to Germany to study, I have seen firsthand the power of national pride and the agony of losing to a country that is not respected on the world stage for its political positions. I have witnessed through news reports the scores of soccer riots that erupt from the passions that soccer ignites and even worse the isolated personal attacks by rabid fans resulting in serious injury on or even death to opposing fans.
                 
Recently, soccer has had a huge impact on the political upheavals in Egypt. Therefore, as the changes in Egypt have played out during the past two years, I can’t help but reflect on Foer’s book. While Egypt is just one country, it does present a powerful anecdotal case for Foer’s argument. Egypt’s most avid fans are called "ultras," an ominous and expressive term. These ultras led the beginning of the revolt against Hosni Mubarak, the entrenched ruler of Egypt for 30 years. The strongest ultras are aligned with the Ahly and Zamalek clubs out of Cairo. Because of their hooligan status, these ultras have been in constant turmoil with police and even military authority. Often, ultras are arrested before a big match and released the next day so as to avoid trouble. Ultras have been around since the 1990s, but their major rise in Northern Africa occurred after 2005 with contingents in Tunisia, Libya, Algeria and Egypt, and their rise helped fuel the Arab Spring in those countries. Specifically in Egypt, the ultras used social media to encourage Mubarak protesters to rise up, declaring that they would provide protection for the protesters because they knew how to deal with police aggression. While generally taunting opposing ultras at matches and even engaging in violence during matches, these divergent ultras groups banded together to protect neighborhoods in Cairo as the revolution against Mubarak increased.
                 
Then came the infamous clash following a match in Port Said between its Al-Masry club and the visiting Al-Ahly on February 1, 2012, suspiciously occurring on the one year anniversary of pro- and anti-Mubarak supporters storming Tahrir Square, a clash which led to Mubarak’s resignation on February 11, 2012. When Al-Masry surprisingly won the match, 3-1, the Masry fans stormed the pitch, chased down the outnumbered visiting Ahly fans and the result was 79 deaths, although the Al-Ahly ultras only acknowledge 74 deaths. Worse, those who witnessed the event and later authorities who reviewed tapes of the riot all agreed that the security forces did nothing to stop the attacks and refused to unlock the gates at the Ahly end of the field so the fans could run out and escape. Adding to the bizarre nature of this event, the goals scored in the game were all by foreign players and the coach of the Ahly team, Manuel Jose, is Portuguese, making the motivation for the attacks murkier. The teams themselves managed to flee to safety in the locker rooms. This event sparked further political problems in Egypt for the newly elected leader Mohammed Morsi and eventually gave the military popular support as the nation looked for more stabilization. After the trials of those held responsible for the stadium riot, several police were acquitted leading to further riots in Port Said against the government. By January 26, 2013 the Morsi government-supported forces lost complete control of the city. In Cairo, the Al-Ahly club ultras, known as Al-Ahlawy feeling empowered by the weakening government, brazenly entered and burned the headquarters of the Egyptian Football Association (EFA), leading the head of the EFA, Sarwat Swelam, to declare, "the history of Egyptian football is lost and cannot be recovered." Veering suddenly from supporting Egyptians in their political cause for democracy, the Al-Ahlawy ultras now embraced their secular team loyalty and practiced mob rule.
                 
The fallout from these soccer events was both swift and tragic, tearing at the heart of Egyptians’ soccer passion.  Following the Port Said massacre, the EFA suspended the remainder of the soccer season.  Now with the burning of their headquarters and the dangers that soccer fans represented to the stability of both soccer and the nation, the EFA declared that no further matches could be played on Egyptian soil. Yet, Egypt is zealously seeking only its third World Cup bid in 80 years. How could this be accomplished against the backdrop of ever-shifting governments and the exhausting constraints of the National Team now having to travel extensively to get in their qualifiers? Stepping into this drama in September 2012 was Bob Bradley, the former U.S. Men’s National Team coach, who had accepted the job as manager of the Egyptian Men’s National Team. Bradley found himself both a hero to the soccer-obsessed people of Egypt and a man without the resources to accomplish what the nation has been praying for – a World Cup entry. Further, the National Team by its very nature had to be made up of players from these rival clubs who had been enemies to the point of violence and now had to join together to be teammates with a common goal. Many wondered if Bradley could pull it off in the midst of an uncertain political environment whose instability is being fueled by soccer ultras.
                 
Bradley has been very vocal in his view that the Port Said incident was a massacre that was allowed to happen by the security forces. On the other hand, Bradley has spoken warmly about how positive, supportive and enthusiastic the Egyptian people have been toward him and his attempts to bring Egypt their coveted World Cup opportunity. Even matches as far removed from Egypt as Qatar had 1,000 fervent Egyptian fans in an otherwise empty 25,000-seat stadium. They carried signs saying "I (heart) Egypt," responding with loud cheers to Bradley’s over-the-head clapping as strode onto the pitch. Often the team plays in front of only the coaches, players, and officials. The National Team has become a lightning rod for the bonding of sparring Egyptian soccer fans to support their Egyptian players without regard to regional club rivalries. Bradley sees his role as not only a coach to train a team to be competitive on the world stage, but to also mend the clefts that soccer fanaticism has created in Egypt.
 
This combination of horrific and hopeful events demonstrates the arguments Franklin Foer makes in his book. Even as soccer has been behind the revolution and violence in Egypt, it is also the promise of unity. Finding a way to override the intense "tribal" divisions that come with club soccer, Bradley and the Egyptian Men’s National Team may well be the way to bring the country together. Right now Egypt is just one victory away from winning its bracket in the African World Cup qualifying event. It plays against second place Guinea on Sept. 10. That win would pit Egypt against another bracket winner for the ultimate qualifier for the World Cup. As it stands, Egypt has a perfect winning record in the qualifying event, something extremely positive to fuel national pride. Take any divisive political stance and then imagine joining those opposing forces to address together an even more pressing issue. This is the hope for Egypt. The very forces that have rocked Egypt over the past two years are also the same forces that can join together and celebrate the accomplishments of Egyptian citizens in a drive to earn a place on the world stage of sport. We in the United States may not completely understand the intensity of soccer fanaticism since we are still learning how the sport impacts our lives and our culture, but we do understand fanaticism in other arenas and can see how powerful a tool it can be for either good or evil. 
                 
As our kids grow and develop in the sport, we parents need to be able to translate for them the powerful events that soccer around the world motivates or inflames. Soccer feeds national pride, but it also feeds sectional pride leading to fractures among members of the same nation. Soccer can be a force to address issues such as racism, violence and factionalism. But that same force can also spiral out of control in the name of team loyalty. Even FIFA has had to acknowledge these political realities in such situations as Israel’s national team having to play in the European division rather than the Muslim dominated Asian division. We can see how the world political stage affects sports. There was the 1980 U.S. boycott of the Olympics over Russia’s invasion of Afghanistan. More recently, there was the 2010 cancellation of the unfortunately named Islamic Solidarity Games in soccer to be held in Iran. Iran took exception to United Arab Emirates news reports when they compared the Iranian occupation of three islands in the Persian Gulf to the occupation of Palestine. So Iran canceled its sponsorship of the games.  Sports do reflect the major political issues and movements of the day, but they also can be instrumental in affecting these issues and movements. Foer has attempted to show how soccer isn’t always just a benign competition. Soccer can also either represent the political climate surrounding matches or actually influence that climate. We can benefit from his insights whether or not we agree with them, and they can offer us a means to explain some of the more intense soccer outcomes to our children.
 

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Lemonade Out of Lemons

Susan Boyd

Okay, show of hands — how many of you have spent your vacation time and dollars this past year on trips for youth sports events? Plenty of you. As youth sports become more and more sophisticated, so do the tournaments, leagues and games, often spreading out miles away from the home field. It’s not unusual to end up spending precious family vacation time in locales such as Petaluma, Calif., Muscatine, Iowa, or Odessa, Texas, fine cities all, but not exactly the names that leap off the pages of Travel and Leisure Magazine. In planning a vacation, we’re more likely to either visit family or pick a destination with more vacation allure like Orlando, Oahu or Myrtle Beach. Yet, once our kids start playing competitive youth sports, we have those vacation decisions made for us. We don’t begrudge our children the chance to play their sport against strong teams in spirited events, but these trips cut into the more relaxing and traditional vacation opportunities. As summer tournament season winds down, giving way to fall season events, there is some hope for rescuing a great vacation from the jaws of dictated destinations.
 
One: It’s the Journey, not the Destination. This may sound like Confucius became a cruise director, but it is sound advice. Take the time to make discoveries both as you travel to and from an event. Once you know where you are bound, fire up the search engines and find out what lies between home and field. There’s a "Friends" episode where Joey is going to drive from New York City to Las Vegas in Phoebe’s grandmother’s cab. He’s conflicted about the route he should take. If he goes north he can see the largest ball of twine, but if he goes south he can see a chicken play tic-tac-toe. It sounds goofy and unsophisticated, but those kinds of choices end up creating some really memorable family moments. While heading to Des Moines one year for the US Youth Soccer Region II Championships, we discovered a soda fountain in Wilton, Iowa that this couple had run for 60 years, never taking a vacation. They served soups, sandwiches, and of course, lots of ice cream treats. The sandwiches were on thin sliced Wonder bread and brought back memories of being called into lunch by my own mom on a lazy Saturday afternoon. The shakes were thick and made the old-fashioned way, and the root beer float foamed on top with creamy drizzles sliding down the outside of the glass. The place was filled with mementos and our boys still talk about going there. Getting off the interstate system and going into small towns along the way can reveal some very interesting and enjoyable discoveries. Include your kids in the planning and don’t forget about that old stand-by AAA when doing your research. Their Trip-kits include plenty of options for fascinating finds that can’t be located on a 65 m.p.h. roadway. In the Midwest and South all summer and fall are long stretches of old state highways that host "the longest flea markets." For example, along Highway 30, also known as Lincoln Highway, in Indiana and Ohio is the By-Way Yard Sale this Aug. 8-10. You can pick through some really wild selections of knickknacks and whatchamacallits. Giving the kids $5 each and then at the end of the day figuring out who made the best deals can be a great way to make a trip stand out. No matter how hokey something sounds, don’t dismiss it because it’s exactly these kinds of stops that prick our jaded veneers and give us memorable moments.
               
Two: Get Out of the Hotel Room. The game is over, the kids are on an adrenaline rush from either winning or losing, and now you have a 350-square-foot room to look forward to, crowded with the smells and energy of pre-teens and teens at loose ends. Rather than playing video games or fighting over the remote, find an activity outside of those four walls. Before traveling, check out your location to find out where there are bowling alleys, parks, museums, even movie theaters. You may not have the privilege of standing 60 minutes in line at Tower of Terror, but you can get 10 frames of bowling in for the same investment in time. If there are going to be unobstructed expanses of beaches or parks consider having the team members bring along kites for flying or Frisbees for golf, creating your own course using string to form target "holes." There may be a fun hike to be found in the area or you could hold a bird-watching contest. Instead of players banging balls down the hallways and against guest doors, take them to a park for some dribbling races. Check out outlet malls that can’t be very far away from any place you land. Ask the front desk for suggestions on how to spend an afternoon in their town. They may well know a place not readily found through the internet that can be fun. Summer Stock Theater or a local band concert might offer a relaxing evening under the stars. Organize a team dinner by calling ahead to a restaurant and asking if they can serve a meal "family style" for everyone. Lots of diners will accommodate large groups in this way. Or find a buffet such as Golden Corral, CiCi’s Pizza, or Sweet Tomato’s, where the team can eat together easily with all-you-can-eat options. If you’re really organized, you can find coupons online for these places.
               
Three: Use the Hotel Amenities. For many events, hotels are assigned to a team, so your options for that extra-large room or a free hot breakfast can be restricted. Wherever you land, every hotel has something it can offer you and your team from a pool, to a game room, to conference rooms for some indoor game play. In Dayton, we were assigned to a Radisson that had definitely seen better days. There was no breakfast, but it was a business hotel so there was a catering manager. We managed to arrange for a cold breakfast every morning that included cereal, cellophane-wrapped muffins, fresh fruits, juices, milk, and coffee for $3 a person. The first night there, the catering manager put together a pasta dinner with spaghetti, tomato sauce, meat sauce, garlic bread, salad, and cookies with bottled beverages for $7 a person. They usually need at least 48 hours warning but would probably appreciate a week’s notice. If there are large conference rooms available, see if you can procure one with a DVD player and projector to show movies to the team. The hotel might be able to provide a small "buffet" of popcorn, chips and soda to accompany the event for a modest price. Definitely get the family out to the pool to burn off energy, have some together time and take you out of the confines of your room. Some coaches adhere to the "no swimming" theory of downtime, so check with the coach, but in fact unless the pool is kept at 102 degrees, the effect on muscles just doesn’t exist. Check to see if the hotel has a ping pong table or air hockey that they keep in the back and only bring out on request. We found one at the Dayton Radisson, which saved the day for providing an activity. Sometimes hotels will have arrangements with health clubs in the area that you can use for free or for a small fee. And don’t forget about laundry! If the hotel doesn’t have guest laundry available, they should know where a Laundromat is located nearby. Use the trip to check out other far more interesting activities in the town while your laundry washes and dries.
               
Four: Don’t Feel Guilty. If these sports trips are all you can afford for vacation, then embrace them. While you may not have dreamed of visiting Ashtabula, Ohio, where my oldest grandson and family are now ensconced for the Ohio Little League State Tournament, you can make Ashtabula a great memory with preplanning and an open mind. After all, the point of a family vacation is that you are all together doing something different and relaxing. While sitting in a cabana on a sun-streaked beach may be more what you had in mind, how about sitting in the giant two-story rocking chair in Austinburg, Ohio or visiting the Victorian Perambulator Museum in nearby Jefferson, Ohio? You can lounge on any number of similar beaches, but seeing 250 baby carriages all in one place can only be experienced when you find yourself in Ashtabula! These are family times that provide a unique encounter with the environment and one another. Be sure to make a long list of what’s available in the area and let everyone have a say in where you visit. You can find great resources at americaonwheels.com, sillyamerica.com and everysingleplace.com, which list the smallest of towns giving you links to everything in the area. Pack a picnic lunch to share at a historic marker or an overlook. Laugh, sing, play silly games, get reacquainted. It won’t be a waste of good vacation time if you are making memories and finding positive experiences. If you ask the kids if they want to see the largest ball of twine, they may look at you like you lost all your marbles, but if you astonish them with the stop, you may be pleasantly surprised with the reaction. We once stopped at Metropolis, Illinois, home to Superman. It was disappointing to say the least – a tiny dairy town that had more in common with Smallville than Metropolis, but just outside of town was Fort Massac that offered nearly two hours of exploration and a great park for a picnic lunch. While our boys remember the giant Superman statue in town, they remember even better the wooden guard towers they could climb and the tiny slits through which the soldiers had to fit their rifles. In fact, the next year when we had to travel to the East Coast, the boys asked if we could go on a fort tour, which proved to be really fantastic. They even got to raise the "Stars and Stripes" over Fort McHenry in Baltimore, the birthplace of our "Star-Spangled Banner." Have fun planning, executing and enjoying these sports- enforced vacations. They can be more memorable than any theme park and a lot cheaper.

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Standards and Practices

Susan Boyd

I just discovered that FIFA has a 10 Commandments of the Game. I think they are worth posting here because they have meaning for players of any age, their friends and family, and all coaches and officials.
 
1.       Play to win
2.       Play fair
3.       Observe the laws of the game
4.       Respect opponents, teammates, referees, official and spectators
5.       Accept defeat with dignity
6.       Promote the interests of football
7.       Reject corruption, drugs, racism, violence and other dangers to our sport
8.       Help others to resist corrupting pressures
9.       Denounce those who attempt to discredit our sport
10.      Honor those who defend football’s good reputation
 
These are lofty goals for anyone playing a sport that offers our young people the opportunity to set some standards for themselves and their team beyond winning a game or a championship. While few 6-year-olds will need to concern themselves with numbers 6 through 10, the commandments can progress with them as they reach the maturity to consider issues such as drugs, violence and reputation. Parents can certainly benefit by paying attention to what the governing organization of world-wide soccer considers important elements of the sport. We can use these commandments as a springboard to discuss with our kids the various on-field behaviors of players, especially with the World Cup fast approaching. While I personally find these commandments a bit stilted and stifling, I still see their overall benefit in providing a moral backdrop for the game and our developing players.
               
We don’t often talk about the ethical aspects of the game, except when something monumental happens on the field. We’re quick to denounce slide tackles from behind or overt jersey grabs. But we may be missing the opportunity to look at some bigger issues with our kids. I wrote last week about swearing. How often have we opened up a dialog with our children about the language they are hearing on the pitch? We would certainly be surprised to find out how often and when young players begin using foul vocabulary. In addition, we should be inquiring how often our kids hear other players using slurs directed at opponents whether ethnic, mental, sexual, religious or gender-based. Several terms that would never have been considered spoken in the past have become part of our regular lexicon without regard to the residual impact the language has on members of particular groups. When our kids hear those words used without restriction or consequence, they learn to accept it as a normal part of the on-pitch banter. As parents, we can provide the contextual understanding of what these terms actually mean and who they hurt. We can also convey the message that we won’t tolerate our children using loaded language. That means we need to watch our own language, which in the heat of excitement or frustration may cross a boundary during a game. The most important factor is to keep a dialog open with our kids, so they can help you understand what happens and how it affects them.
               
These commandments also got me thinking about what inspires our kids. Commandments can be a drag — restrictive rather than liberating. While it should be a good thing to have guidelines, kids also need motivation and vision when persevering through tough times. I don’t know if Albert Einstein ever played or even watched soccer, but he did make a good point when he said, "In the middle of difficulty lies opportunity." He didn’t talk about success or achievement or triumph, but only about the possibilities that exist in our lives that we can transform to a positive degree if we are willing to work through adversity. Our kids need to find and seize the opportunities without expectation. We can teach them how to look for and appreciate the moments handed to them to simply try. Sometimes trying will end up with success and sometimes trying will end in failure. Michael Jordan, arguably the best basketball player of the all-time, pointed out that he missed more than 9,000 shots, lost more than 300 games, and missed 26 game-winning shots in his career. "I’ve failed over and over and over again in my life, and that is why I succeed." We parents need to take the harshness away from failure and instead present it as another opportunity. What might our child or her team have done differently? How can she build her skills and confidence using the lessons from the unhappy event? Tell our kids that there are really only two options: giving up and passively accepting defeat or making plans and plowing ahead. As Ayn Rand said, "The question isn’t who is going to let me; it’s who is going to stop me." We can nurture our children’s efforts in such a way that they don’t become their own roadblocks. The truth is that however our kids consider themselves, winners or losers, they are right. We want them to consider themselves winners.
               
When we talk about the 10th commandment — "honor those who defend football’s good reputation" — we are actually talking about how our kids can honor their own reputations. The stronger they become as players physically, mentally and morally, the more they honor the game and by reflection themselves. Aiming for their highest soccer-playing goals will serve them well as they approach any objective in their lives. That will be the strongest benefit of learning to seize opportunity and persevere in soccer. Soccer should be fun. It should also be honorable and character building. Anything else is icing because few will rise to the highest levels of play — not because they lack determination, but because they have already arisen to their highest level of skill. Therefore, we parents need to support their dreams by also shaping their character. Helen Keller stated, "Character cannot be developed in ease or quiet. Only through experiences of trial and suffering can the soul be strengthened, vision cleared, ambition inspired and success achieved." Soccer offers our kids plenty of experiences that fulfill trial and suffering. What our children make of those experiences depends a great deal on how we parents approach those experiences. We can inspire, we can honor, we can teach and we can encourage, or we can be negative, defeatist, accusatory and angry. The latter behaviors convey to our children that failure is unacceptable rather than an opportunity.         
 
No one wants to experience defeat, an injury, an insult, a dressing down, or lack of playing time, but those things do happen both in soccer and in life. Like the bumper sticker says, "Giving up on your goal after one setback is like slashing your other three tires because you got a flat." We can help our kids learn how to change a tire by pointing out opportunities. We can give them a framework for honorable play with the FIFA Ten Commandments. We can build their character by engaging them in discussions of what constitutes proper deportment on the pitch. But most importantly, we can provide a strong, personal example of how we exercise these factors in our own lives.

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