Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Free Soccer Book Released

After many years and 100's of requests, Coach V has finally started to publish the Free Soccer Book . It can be viewed right now online. Enjoy.

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Soccer Parents, Your Soccer Player Can’t Be Great

Soccer Parents, Your Soccer Player Can’t Be Great By: Coach V

Last week I got email from a parent / coach. He and his son were watching the SoccerU series together, session by session and working on all the technical skills at home. He was amazed at the level of improvement in his son’s skills. Even his coaches had commented at his club. He started to question whether or not he should move his son to a different club. He knew there was a “better ranked” club about an hour away from his home town and thought that might help his son. What he didn’t realize is that HIS efforts, away from the structured practice, were the reason why his son was improving. My response included many of the points below.

A boring match of youth soccer.

This past weekend I made it a point to watch the top U12 team in our state, ranked #1 in the state and #4 in the nation, and guess what? I was rather disappointed. I saw a group of ‘average kids’ with average skills kicking a soccer ball around the field just like most games everywhere else.
Why are they ranked so high and why do they win so many games? It’s not due to outstanding talent, brilliant players, or great coaching, it is about numbers. While they played several teams in this tournament one thing was clear about their team, all the boys looked alike. Same height, same build, good athletes and average to above average soccer skills. The key to their success? They had 6 more of these kids sitting on the bench. A strong “average” player kept them from having weaknesses that most teams face. Their club had four U12 teams and over 150 kids trying out for slots on those teams. It’s pretty easy to “scrape the cream” when your pool is so deep. This simply reinforced the fact I have long faced with soccer in the US and many other countries. The days of brilliant young players may never come and I’ll tell you why.

Where have all the artists gone?

First take a look at one of my favorite players of all time, Maradona. An artist with a soccer ball, he grew up very poor and spent every afternoon after school and all the weekends playing soccer. Seldom would his parents know exactly where he was during these times, but it was assumed he was at the fields with his friends. If you take these guidelines he played roughly 1100 hours of soccer every year before going to a “structured club” environment. From the time he could run soccer was all he knew and the only thing that brought him happiness.

Next look at Ronaldo. As a young child Ronaldo was obsessed with soccer. His mother would ask him if had any homework to do after school, Cristiano used to lie and say no. He just wanted to play soccer. While his mother was making dinner for the family Ronaldo would just grab some fruit and climb out of the window. Sometimes he would not come home till nine o’clock at night because he had been playing soccer. Again, he probably spent over 1000 hours a year playing soccer as a child.

Now, let’s look at your child’s soccer schedule. For most players there is a structured practice twice a week for 1.5 hours, and one game per weekend. This happens for about 12 weeks in the spring and fall. Throw in a week or two of summer soccer camp and you have a total of 100 – 150 hours of “soccer time” per year. Now let’s compare, 1000 plus hours per year vs. 100 hours per year. Is your child a soccer superstar in the making? I think not. More than likely he or she will join the ranks of “better than average” players that can be found in every town in America.

We live in an age that is vastly different from 20 or 30 years ago and certainly different from very poor countries. Kids come home from school do their homework, watch TV, play video games, or maybe shoot some hoops with the neighbor next door. School and structured activities occupy much of their free time and many play several different sports during a year. If your child “goes out” you know exactly where they are, whom they’re with and what they are doing. It’s not like the “old days” where kids just disappeared for 8 hours and parents assumed they would come home sometime after dark.

Driving around my town I seldom, if ever, see “pick up” soccer games. There are plenty of fields around but most are empty the majority of the time. The days of spending countless hours on the grass, with a ball at our feet are pretty much gone forever. Sadly when you look at many of the “soccer greats” most of their creativity and marriage to the ball happened during these times.

Experts are created, not born.

I think you are starting to get my point. Experts or Professionals are not born that way. They get that way through thousands of hours of play, practice, exposure and training. Just because a child is a good “athlete” doesn’t mean they’ll be a great soccer player. Rafael Nadal, a top ranked professional tennis player, grew up playing soccer before an uncle switched his focus to tennis. What if his other uncle, who played in three world cups for Spain, had focused him on soccer? What would he be doing now?

Expertise and developed skill is a result of focused attention, practice and training. Going to soccer practice twice a week for an hour is not the path of a future soccer great. It is, however, the path that most average soccer players in the US take. Our lifestyle and culture in the US does not support this path of greatness. It is not one of soccer pick up games, and weekend soccer where we simply go to play the game we love. Our kids don’t have a soccer ball at their feet 7 days a week. Kids don’t show up back at home Wednesday night at 9:30 after spending 6 hours on the pitch playing free play soccer. Many simply lack the “artistry” and developed natural control that many players in the past or in other countries have. However, I don’t see this as an “ALL bad thing”, just something that needs to be understood.

It’s OK to have a life outside of soccer when they’re kids and beyond.

By now many of you are starting to wonder if your child will ever be able to gain the touch and skill needed to be a quality player. “What can I do now that I understand our culture and times are different than other countries and years gone by?” “Should you dump them off in some third world country and hope they develop these skills?” “How is my child going to get the needed training to improve?” Calm down and realize this. I want you to understand that there are many “Maradonas” still living in poverty. They also grew up very poor and played soccer 7 days a week but never had the luck or opportunity that he had. Many failed to get an education or never had the chance for one.
There are many “Maradonas” working in underpaying factories or unemployed all over the world. In a way, we should be glad that our children have to “find time” for soccer. A well rounded, well educated child has the best chance for success in life. I believe however, we can accomplish this and still develop players with greater ability, talent and creativity. You as a parent play a greater role in that than you think.

Here are some tips to help your child improve.

Stop trying to find that “perfect” club.

If your child is playing on an “Academy team” (travel soccer team) they’re going to get about the same exposure and training that all the others players get across the nation. Yes, some clubs might have a better coaching staff or focus more on development, but remember it’s only about 2 or 3 hours a week for 2 short seasons a year. It is a small part of your child’s development. Chances are that driving an extra hour each way to that “better club” will have little effect on your child’s development.

Don’t think that summer soccer camps are “training grounds”.

Most short summer soccer camps (3 – 5 days) are a great “growing” experience for kids. They learn to be away from home, how to make new friends, and deal with an unknown environment. They do this and get to play some soccer as well. However, 3 days at a soccer camp will not turn your child into a soccer great. Instead of canoeing, horseback riding and archery, your child will be playing the game they love and surrounded by other kids that love the game as well. They will return with the same skills they had before they left. Keep this in perspective and they’ll have a great time.

Make time at home for training and practice.

I’ve always said that the best coach I ever had was my dad. Not just for sports, but life in general. We are greatly shaped by our parent’s involvement in what we do at the youth level. Parents must take the role of mentor and teacher. They must learn how to train their child and how to encourage their growth in the skills needed. I strongly believe that a parent and child should learn together. Seeing dad bust his “behind” trying to do a new move is great for laughter and bonding. It lets the younger player know that learning happens all the way through life. Several times a week make the time to do touches, moves, shooting, trapping and touch on the skills that are not worked on during normal practices. You will cherish these sessions for the rest of your life as time well spent with your child.

Create a local weekend pick up league.

Most local, public parks and recreation facilities have no restrictions on local tax payers using their fields, if they are not “an organized league”. You can email friends and teammates and have weekend games during the off season. We started one locally and one Sunday afternoon had 50 kids show up. (All different ages, both boys and girls.) We coned off 5 small fields and played 5 v 5, round-robin. We kept the parents out of the picture and just let the kids play. Probably the most fun I’ve seen the kids have in years. Even if you only have 6-8 kids, let them play and they’ll have a great time. Remember, these are not coaching and teaching sessions. Let them run the show.

Watch top level soccer as well as “not top level” soccer.

A great exercise is to have a developing soccer player watch a premier league match, then watch a high school or college match. Watch for the little details. What makes the best in the world better than others? When the ball is passed on the upper game, every pass is perfect pace and on the ground. Lower game, lots of bouncing balls and air balls. Upper game, every air ball or bouncing ball is killed with the first touch. Lower game, players often move away from air balls or fail to control them. Upper game, finishing strikes are usually low and at the corners. Lower game, over the cross bar or right at the keeper. It is a reflective exercise that really helps maturing players understand that the slightest improvement in skills makes a huge difference in the game.

These same points I passed on to that parent must be understood by all working with a young soccer player. Playing “travel” soccer is simply one part of a child’s development. It is what happens AWAY from this structured environment that truly may have the greatest impact on your child’s development. Accept the fact that times and schedules have changed and build around it. Keep it fun and cherish these times as bonding and memories, not just a soccer time.

Saturday, July 25, 2009

Teaching Youth Soccer Technical Skills

When Youth Soccer Players Stop Thinking
Does this sound like a bad thing?
The title might lead you to think so, but in fact it is a good thing when youth soccer players can actually stop thinking. Follow along and what you will grasp is the key aspect many developing players, parents and coaches are missing.

Watching the “soccer greats” play.
The other night I had a once in a lifetime opportunity. I took my son to watch AC Milan play. You could tell he was truly engaged by the power of this experience. We had the opportunity to watch Ronaldinho play and see Onyewu, only the second American to play Serie A, make his debut. What a night as we had no idea that both would be on the field together in their first game.

As I watched the match I was once again truly impressed how natural everything seemed. A ball sent in from 60 yards away was touched once and was sitting at the player’s feet. Coming into 3 defenders Ronaldinho simply stayed centered on the ball and waltzed though them gracefully escaping the pressure. Every pass was at perfect pace and rolling smoothly on the ground. The overall first touch of these players would amaze anyone.

After the game I reflected on what a technical director from England and I had talked about last year. This “perfect touch” and all the technical skills didn’t just come naturally and they didn’t come from just playing “pick up games”. The majority of these players had these skills engrained into their souls by repeating them 100’s if not 1000’s of times on the practice field, day after day, year after year. They performed them without “thinking”, they were “instinctive”.

Every good youth soccer coach and trainer should understand this definition…

Instinctive: “A behavior that is mediated by reactions below the conscious level.”

In other words, we perform these skills and react without having to “think” about them.

How do we teach soccer skills make something instinctive?
Just think about tying your shoe. Well, maybe I should say think about the fact that you DON’T have to think about it. It can take months for a child to learn it and even longer for it to become a “thoughtless act”. The same applies to skills in soccer. One of the key principals of the www.SoccerU.com training series is this “learning process”. Not just the skill, but how this skill is learned step by step.

1) First we must learn the skill broken down and step by step. Each step of the skill is vital and if not perfected, will break down the overall movement and result. We must show it in slow motion, give a visual example and also explain the why, not just the how.

2) Next we must make sure the player is performing the skill properly. We don’t want the player repeating the skill “improperly” or that is the way it will be engrained. (You can see this on every soccer field in the world. Kids repeating a “bad” shot on goal time after time, hoping it somehow improves.) This takes patience and must be done in slow motion, but after a while the good skill will come through.

3) Then we repeat the skill over and over without pressure. We want the mind to be clear and focus on performing the skill at game speed. We repeat this over and over, day after day.

4) Once this step has been completed we add the pressure if it applies; a closing defender or another player that is nearby. This step is critical so that the player “feels” the real game situation in which the skill will be used. This game like replication, with pressure, is a critical part of learning the skill for use / recall in a game.

Why should these skills be repeated often?
Last year I was on the practice field with a team and their 30 professional players. I couldn’t help but notice the warm ups and touch drills they ran through over and over. These were not “high end technical skills” but basic core touches and raw skills. These were skills that they would use in a game over and over, yet they were repeating them in a practice setting.
Look at professional golfers. Why do some of the greatest golfers in the world go to the practice range every week and some even every day?
One must understand that learning a skill only one time or practicing a skill a few times over several years is never enough. The human brain builds a set of "sensory-motor memories" for each skill we learn. The more we repeat it the better defined and more “natural” (instinctive) the skill becomes. Once this process has been completed this “memory” becomes engrained into our brain. Now even if we don’t use the skill for a while, such as riding a bike, our brain has the ability for “spontaneous recovery of the skill” or memory.
We need to revisit each skill time and time again. Teach a child how to receive a ball on their thigh when their 9 and by the age of 10, this skill will be forgotten or not be “instinctive”. Revisit this skill once a week and by age 10 it will be ingrained into their subconscious and be “instinctive”.

At home and away from “practice”.
Look at the amount of time you, your team and your child has to practice these skills in a “structured soccer environment”.
In many countries players show up for soccer practice 5 days a week and these practices sessions last for 3 hours. In the US and many other countries we have about 2 hours a week during a 12 week season. Within this time we also have to work on learning the game, fitness, set plays, formations, scrimmages, and many other aspects. This leaves little, if any, time for repetitive skill training. Not a problem for those who play for “fun” or recreational purposes. However, a large percentage of players leave this recreational level and move to a competitive, academy and travel level. These players want to compete, focus on the game of soccer, and improve to be the best they can be at this sport. These players must have the assistance of their parents. The parent must make time to work with their child in a private or semi-private training time away from the “structured practice”. We can then focus on skills that are specific to that child and their needs.

Parents, you don’t have to be a pro.
At home or on the field parent / child training sessions should be fun but also focused on repeating and improving skills. The parent doesn’t have to be an “ex-pro soccer player” to do this. Any parent can learn right along with the child while practicing. It might be a bit humbling, but watching Mom or Dad fail and struggle often makes the “medicine go down” a bit easier.
Believe it or not, this is how many of the great youth soccer coaches in our system are born. They start out knowing little about the game and devote a great deal of time and energy to learning about development of young players, rather than “winning”. They often devote years and hundreds of hours of their time becoming better trainers, coaches and builders of young minds and bodies. So regardless of your own skill level as a parent or coach, you can teach young players skills. Simply learn how to teach them and then invest the time.

Monday, May 25, 2009

Soccer Technical Skills

What You Put in Your Child’s Soccer Tool Bag is Long Term

Many parents struggle with their child’s development in youth soccer. They constantly worry about what to teach them, what team they should play on, what camp should they go to, or should they age up? I hope that this article will put many minds at ease and clears up some true objectives for parents, players and coaches.

The child’s tool bag…
I just finished reading “The Italian Job” written by Gianluca Vialli and was really struck by a few comments made by both him and some of the greatest coaches in Europe. I think they make a point that I will try and drive home. Vialli was a tremendous player and as a manager for Chelsea won more trophies in two and half years than any other manager in club’s history. He knows soccer and what it takes to make a player “whole”.

He quotes Sir Alex, Manchester United Manager, and his thoughts on youth development. I think this quote is vital for all to learn.
“To some degree we can list the attributes of a successful footballer: technical, tactical, athletic and temperamental. The trick is to identify a child’s potential and help him reach it. Clubs are trying to create foundation through basic technical skills and practice. You have to have that first. It’s like if someone gives you a bag of tools and there are only a few tools in it. Even if you are a trained electrician or plumber, but you only have one hammer and a few screws in your tool bag, there isn’t much you can do. What we at United believe in is getting kids who have the full bag of tools before they come to us at sixteen. Then it’s up to the coaches to put the football (soccer) part into it, the tactics and all that.”

He also quotes Juventus boss Fabio Capello who was in charge of Milan’s youth set-up for six years.
“At 8 or even 12, you should be focusing on two things: having fun and improving your technique. The other aspects can come later. What’s the point of trying to build up fitness of a ten year old if his body is still growing? And what’s the point of cluttering his mind with tactical notions and formations? All you’re doing is stifling his ability to express himself.”

Both of these quotes instill what I have preached for years. Many players are good soccer “players” but often lack the full range of “tools” needed to continue that level of play at the higher levels. The genesis of our SoccerU series started with the realization that most developing players simply can’t get everything they need from just attending “organized soccer”. There are over 100 technical skills to learn and little time to work on them.
Why does this happen? Let’s take a quick look.

Lack of training time…
Compare your youth soccer training schedule to those around the world and in upper level training academies. Most US youth players practice twice a week for one to one and half hours. This is done during a season that lasts around 12 weeks. Play spring and fall and your total training time might be as little as 48 hours a year.
Compare this to some development programs where young players might receive over 700 hours a year. A simple reinforcement of the fact that much of the technical training a youth player needs must come from outside organized soccer.

Focus on winning…
Many of our current US systems are set up on the “here and now”. We watch results, look at standings, and recruit guest players for tournaments to improve standings for the team and the club. This is done as young as the U10 level in some areas. In true development academies most players are allowed to participate in one match per week. The rest of the time is spent on developing the player’s growth, overall athletic ability and technique. Very rarely if ever will you see any tournament play.
If you’ve ever been to a U13 match and watched the coach and parents screaming on the sidelines you’ll understand what I mean. “Winning” is often giving top priority in our systems. Players are not seen as a “final product” traveling down a path of development, but instead what they can contribute now, to my team. A sad statement when you are talking about 9 – 12 year olds.
If I’m watching a soccer match and someone asks me the score, I can never tell them. I really could care less about the “results”, but instead focus on each players “bag of tools”. Many coaches try and develop / use player’s strong points and strengths; I want to work on their weaknesses.

Many players have strengths, but they all have weaknesses…
Years ago I quit “coaching” and decided to only focus on technical development, studies and training. It has been a blessing. I have worked with all levels of players; from 8 year olds, to division one college players, to professional players from all over the world. The one thing I see in common is that they ALL have their weaknesses.
I believe this is emphasized by our own system and coaches to some degree. There are many well respected camps that promote “positional camps” for players as young as 10. Not a good thing for creating the overall player. Players between the ages of 8 and 14 should not be “locked in” to positional play. They need constant exposure to all aspects and positions.
The top players in the world are well rounded even though they have their strengths. Instead of working on their strengths they have focused on their weaknesses, or at least have had well rounded training and exposure. This should be the goal of everyone that is involved in youth player development. Making sure they have a “full bag of tools”.

Causing Panic…
One of my favorite things to do is to work with a “top level team” and cause panic / provoke thought.
I will let the coach know the first thing I want to do is to see the team scrimmage for a while. I let the coach and players set themselves up.
Right before the whistle blows I stop the match. I take to the field and cause panic. I put the top strikers in goal. I move the left backs to right forwards. I put players in positions they haven’t played for years. They all look at me like I’m crazy, but when the game starts it’s pretty ugly. That midfielder, that normally sends beautiful balls over the top and long, is miss-hitting every pass with their weak foot. The new “defender” is getting beaten every time. You get the drift. They are trying to use tools that are NOT in their bag. I let them know that very quickly that if they want to be GREAT players, there is a lot of work to be done. It is fine to have a strong right foot, but every once in a while they need to have the left available as well.

The reason kids quit soccer…
Read any youth coaching manual or information packet on youth sports. Right away they will tell you the number one reason kids quit soccer is that it “wasn’t fun anymore”. I believe this to be true, but I believe that the basic “cause” of this reason is misunderstood and often misstated.
I have seen many youth players “play the game” of soccer for years. They play spring and fall and go the normal route most do. They are coached by “good” coaches but often their technical skills (bag of tools) is not filled properly. Many players will only learn one to three NEW skills per season, simply not enough. Many will never “revisit” older skills and work repetitively to improve them. As they get older the “skills” are put aside and tactical training is the primary focus.
What happens to many of these kids is that the “game”, which was once easy and fun, now becomes more difficult. They are often criticized by fellow players, coaches and parents when they can’t perform the SKILLS needed to help the team win. I have watched player after player, especially in rec leagues, win game after game, championship after championship, only to end up being a poor to moderate player. The GAME has become too difficult, their skills were not refined, and their “bag of tools” was very limited.
On the other hand, I have seen young players that don’t have a single “trophy” in their room, but have the most incredible touch and skill for their age. They are the product of good “foundation training”.

What should be our focus…
The “tool bag” will go everywhere that the player goes for the rest of their life. Add as many tools as you can. They will play for many different coaches and learn many different and ever changing “tactical” aspects. They will at some point take a few months off and get “out of shape”. Both of these things can be fixed or changed quickly. However the technical skills that are now instinctive to them take years and years to develop. They are long term and must be developed early.

We must help players grow and provide a path that leads to improvement, creativity and learning.
Playing the game is very important and when ever possible, kids should participate in “semi-organized” / pick-up matches. They have a tendency not to focus on “I can’t make a mistake or fail” but rather “can I try this and make it work”. Often they fail, everyone laughs and the game goes on. In a “real match” they would be criticized for trying and failing.

Watching the game is also important. In Europe many kids will watch 3 – 5 professional matches a week. In the US, many kids might watch one per year. I think watching the game on its highest level is critical for learning. It’s amazing when a 10 year old shouts at the TV, “good idea”, even though the pass was not received well by the striker.

The tool bag is portable…
Make sure you don’t focus on the “here and now”. Don’t worry about results but rather the strengths and weaknesses. The “tool bag” of raw technical skills can be taken anywhere the child goes. Keep filling the bag, enjoy the game and let time take its natural course.

Saturday, March 28, 2009

Soccer Parents Training at Home

Soccer Champions Grow In Your Backyard

Have you ever watched youth soccer games and noticed a few players who really stood out as talented? Did you watch with amazement as they dribbled through the crowd of defenders and then finished with that perfect shot? The fact is that all sports, not just soccer, have certain athletes that just seem to amaze us. We as parents want out kids to develop as well, but how do we start? How do we get them to improve? The answer may be right outside your window in your backyard.

The common thread among great soccer players….

First, let’s take a look at Tiger Woods. Wait a minute, why a golf player? Because his name is known world wide and we can all relate to his story. For most of his developing life who was his coach and trainer? Who was his only putting coach as he progressed into the Pro years? The answer to both was his dad, Earl.
Was Earl Woods a professional golfer? Not at all, he was a career Army man that had a passion for the sport. He loved golf and he loved his son. He was able to blend time spent together and building a passion for the game, with learning and improving. Much of this time was right in their backyard “messing around”, having fun and exposing a child to new skills and thoughts. There were hours and hours of performing repetitive skills in the form of games and challenges. The same applies for so many great soccer players of our time and we as parents can learn from this example.

Parents are the key…

Ask any great soccer player who played a major role in their soccer growth and 90% of the time the answer will be “Mom or Dad”. When we developed the SoccerU series we specifically had this in mind. Whether it was the level of support or the time at night and weekends spent in the back yard just “messing around”, parents are often the engine behind developing talent, not the coach.
Each night I drive by our local public fields and sure enough there is a parent and child on the field working on skills or just “messing around” together. These small little sessions play such a major role in a youth player’s development, I can’t stress them enough. Last year I worked with several former Division One college players and the same was true. Their “parents” were the reason they were able to achieve such success. None of these parents were “pro soccer players” so how did they help that struggling child? I will explain.

Watch your next few soccer practices…

Let’s say that a young soccer player, over their development cycle, needs to learn and master 75 core skills. These will include everything from learning the difference between an offensive header and defensive header to receiving a pass under pressure and proper first touch. Whether the skill is basic like dribbling or advanced like performing a volley kick, each of these individual skills must be shown, taught and practiced repeatedly. However, you’ll notice that over the course of a soccer season players may only learn one to four new skills. Often after learning them, they seldom return to practice them in a repetitive session. At that pace they will hit the “competitive level” without ever really refining all the core skills.

Now, don’t go blaming the coach…

The first thing you realize when you become a soccer coach is that you are missing one thing, TIME. Working in the “group” means that all the players must be trained together. All their levels of skills, behavior and learning must be viewed as a whole, and one on one / individual training is almost never done. One to three hours a week for few weeks in the spring and fall is simply not enough time. You are also supposed to get this “motley crew” to play together as a team and hopefully win at least one game.
You will quickly see how many youth soccer players can hit the middle school and even high school level with very few refined technical skills. As players get older the focus switches to “competing”. We often see less and less time spent on core technical training which is a huge mistake.

1000’s of touches and hours of repetition…

Charlie Cook, the director of Coerver Training US, emailed me last year. He was reflecting on watching the national team and a player that received a long air pass. The player, with out any effort, gently touched the ball once and killed it into his path. “An amazing sight to see.” However he quickly pointed out that this was not a god given talent. This player was not born with this touch nor did he learn it by just “playing the game”. He learned it by practicing it over and over. Thousands of touches and repetition until this skill was a part of his nature, “instinctive”. His point was clearly made. To have a skill become “natural or instinctive” it must be repeated over and over until we no longer have to “think about it”. It becomes a habit that the player performs without thought.

This is where the back yard begins…

We, as parents must become teachers. We must be able to identify skills in their raw form and learn how to perform them correctly ourselves. We then must be able to tell and show a child visually how to properly perform the skill. After many short repetitive sessions it will eventually allow them to feel it and let it become part of their nature. Until we do this, it will never become an instinctive habit.
Parents however, sometimes feel “lost” and don’t know where to begin, how to progress or even how to teach these skills. You do not have to become a “professional soccer player”. You simply must learn to teach what your child will not be taught during the “normal development cycle” of their soccer career. Hence the 10 hours of skills breakdown on SoccerU.

Watch out for the frustration…

A simple warning for parents is to be aware that younger players often become frustrated easily. Our goal is to keep it fun and make sure the child feels like these are THEIR sessions and not forced on them. Keep them short and mix them in with what the child wants to do. Maybe they want to be goal keeper, maybe they want to take penalty shots on mom or dad. Whatever it is, keep the training divided in half. Half learning and repetition and half fun and games. Create challenges and even have fun goals to achieve. There is nothing better than a challenge between the child and parent.

There always is a parent…

In the US pickup games and free play soccer has almost become extinct. The extra hours of needed play and skill work now has to come from the parent. Parents often search for the “perfect soccer camp” spending hundreds even thousands of dollars on camps that might only last 2 – 5 days. These are great for social development but offer little improvement in what the players need.
When I meet a talented young soccer player I always ask them, “Who taught you how to play?” Every single player over the past two years has responded the same way, “My Mom / Dad.”
Make sure you realize the importance of “off program” training and make sure you understand the importance of the backyard. Cherish this time as not only soccer training, but bonding as well. Always remember that they are KIDS first, not soccer players, and nothing says “good work” like a stop for ice cream on the way home.

Thursday, January 8, 2009

President Obama Can’t Save Youth Soccer

Economy Takes Toll on All Youth Sports
Mike Whitmore
Youth Soccer News

If you’re the new President of the United States, you might be just “tad” busy right now. Hundreds, if not thousands, of issues on your plate and trust me, saving youth soccer is not one of them. Youth soccer clubs from all around the world will soon start to feel the pinch of an ever tightening economy.

For the first time in many years some youth soccer clubs are predicting, if not already seeing, a drop in numbers rather than the steady incline they have seen for many years. Everyone from recreational leagues to advanced academy programs everywhere are starting to see a “bump in the road” and it is affecting the numbers.

A family with two children can easily spend in excess of $2000 a season by the time you add up club fees, equipment and travel costs. The only bright side of the picture right now is that fuel costs are nearly half of what they a short time ago. In times where everything seems to be having budget cuts, the family’s dollars for “sports activities” is dwindling as well.

Dave Meyers, a club manager in Texas said, “We always operate on a tight budget, but if numbers start to decline, we are facing some tough decisions. We are an academy program that pays our coaches but we may have to ask them to reduce their income. We are also looking at other sources of revenue.” This trend seems to be spreading throughout the US, and not just in certain regions. The CT, Watertown Youth Soccer Association registration peaked at nearly 700 youngsters in the fall of 2006 and has since dropped to around 520 this fall. While they are not positive the economy is main factor, it certainly contributes to the decline.

Many clubs have tried approaching local businesses but that door seems to shutting quickly as well. Just trying to meet the payroll is tough enough, charity to local clubs will have to wait it seems. Steve Whitmore, who helps run a local academy soccer club, said “We stopped knocking on local business doors last year because it just wasn’t effective. We now use our website to help. We started using fund raising programs like SoccerU last year. They helped us generate very good money for our club and the parents and kids received quality training.”
We don’t see youth soccer getting in line for the government bailouts just yet, but who knows. With tax payers shelling out millions to companies that support professional teams and athletes it might just make sense.

Monday, January 5, 2009

The Golden Years of Youth Soccer Technical Training

One might think this information is for the “little kids” or “inexperienced coaches”, but I hope to drive home a point that all will learn from, soccer technical training often ends too early.

Let me start by going to the “top” so I don’t lose many of you that think technical training doesn’t apply to advanced players. I will start with two examples, one with a professional player and the second a college bound player.

It goes all the way to the top.
Last year, while working on Blast The Ball and SoccerU, I was fortunate enough to spend time working with several professional players from all over the world. I will use Mac as an example. Mac is now a professional player with the MLS. I spent a couple of afternoons with him and we covered several topics, mainly striking and kicking a soccer ball. Mac played in college, went to the USL and now is playing in the MLS. I read a recent interview with him and it was a breath of fresh air. He was humble and grateful for his opportunities. When asked about his transition from the USL to the MLS he stated that play at the USL level was more physical and the MLS was more technical. He was thrilled to be around great teachers and coaches that could work with him to refine many of his skills.
My point? There are many creative, aggressive and physical soccer players, but when you take a look at the very best in the world, you will see very refined technical skills combined with all their other attributes. Only those that continually refine, develop and learn technical skills continue to progress.

The high school and college soccer player.
This past year I worked with many college players and older high school players. Many of the college players played at Division 1 schools and some even had a stint with some pro teams. They were mixed of male and female players. One of the high school players I worked with for over 30 hours had a great comment about the technical training we covered. “If I had this training 4 years ago, I would be going to a different (better) school right now.” Amazingly this kid was a fantastic player; fast, tall, great creativity, top goal scorer, and more. However, he was humble enough to realize that he has so much more to learn or at least refine.
The same applied to many of the college players. When taken through some of the technical skills many admitted that they never received a “true” technical training session on many skills, even the basics. They simply had to figure it out on their own. Once I showed them the true form and took them back to the basic steps and learning, they all had the same reaction. “I wish I had this training years ago.”
Unfortunately once we get to the higher competitive levels players are focused on conditioning, physical play and tactical work. Failing to constantly return to basic core technical training is a problem that many upper level players have to deal with.

Technical training should be the core of youth soccer development.
Unfortunately, especially in the US, we start “playing for the team” or trying to “achieve results” too early. Nothing like the coach of a 10 year old team pacing on the sidelines screaming at his players that they “stink and are playing like a bunch of losers”. (Yes, an actual quote I heard last year.) This coach had one problem. He wanted to win like we all do, but he placed that trait of human nature above the needs of his players.
These kids desperately needed general ball handling, dribbling and passing skills work, but you just know that the coach was spending all the practice time on conditioning, set plays and tactical work. I guess his next intended step was to coach with the “premiere leagues”.
Understanding that we are developing “future competitors” is the first step in youth development. The best training development clubs in the world strictly limit competitive matches and focus on the player’s overall development. It is pretty widely accepted that once a player hits the age of 16, it is hard to return and teach the skills.

There are two key factors in developing youth players.
First, is a love for the game. Street soccer, pick up games and non-adult structured soccer games help kids be creative and develop a love for the game. This environment unfortunately no longer exists in the US. We have to keep in mind that ending all “work sessions” with fun small sided games is critical to kids walking away from all practices thinking, “I want to come back next week.”
This also applies to older players. Just because a player is “advanced” you have to remember that they really are still just a “kid at heart”. 17 year olds love to “play” and have fun too.

Second, is constantly returning to repetitive exposure of all the core skills. Instead of running laps and conditioning for 20 minutes to begin our practices, we should have players touching the ball with basic skills. Dribbling, passing, moves, chesting, heading and all the skills they actually use in a game.
I can’t tell you the number of advancing soccer players I see that struggle to perform basic moves such as pull backs, cuts and feints. They learned them a long time ago, but never practice them. Start EVERY practice the same way. Core movement drills, repeating the basic and essential ball control skills. End every practice the same way; fun, small sided games where the coach is not controlling every move.

Our teachers (coaches) are often not players.
One critical point to training young soccer players is first making sure the “teacher” understands how to teach. When you combine recreational soccer in with the academy programs the number of coaches that never really played competitive soccer is very high. Some of our surveys had the number at 70%. (Dad got involved because his son decided to play and the club or program needed “volunteers”.) However, I will tell you that some of the best youth coaches I have met were not “great players”. They became great coaches because they focused on youth development and core technical training. Their focus was on “what is best for my players” and not “how do I become winning and successful coach”. It is critical that coaches not only learn how to be a better coach, but also how to teach each individual technical skill the RIGHT way. Forget about the “winning” and focus on the “development”.

Understand the difference between Immediate and Residual training.
Immediate training includes things that we can control rather quickly but often do not last a long time. For example, at any time a soccer player can get in condition. Working out for about 4 – 6 weeks will get us into playing shape. However, once that stops or the season ends, the conditioning level goes away and we have to return to build it back up.
Technical skills however, are slowly built and refined over several years. Once they are learned, they will continue to stay with us.
A great quote from former U.S. Men’s National Team captain Claudio Reyna, “It’s possible at any time during a player’s career to get into top physical shape or to try to win every game! But 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.”

The golden years of soccer development only happen once. This is why the SoccerU training series was developed. Focus these years on development and make sure your player(s) are being trained for the long term with skills, not conditioned for the short term to win.