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A Trying Week

31 May

This week is Georgia Soccer’s designated week for Academy tryouts.  Thus, our early evening has been filled with Soccer again this week for one last time before the summer.

Aidan was enthusiastic about starting tryouts Tuesday evening.  After a couple of week layoff from organized soccer, and being out of school since last week, it was a structured activity to look forward to.

The downside is that it’s the end of May in Atlanta – and temperatures yesterday were close to ninety degrees when the kids took the field at 5 PM.

Our club has between fifty and sixty boys trying out for U9 Academy.  Based on 6v6 play, I would expect that they would have 4 teams of 12 players each.  There’s also talk of expanding the pool size for U9 to add two more teams, but nothing concrete has been announced.  From a numerical standpoint then, you would assume that the majority of the players will make the cut and play in Academy.

But that depends as much on the player’s readiness as the numbers.  If the coaches don’t feel players are ready to train at the pace and frequency that Academy entails, then they won’t be selected.

It’s a tough week for the kids – three straight nights of training in the heat for ninety minutes per night.  But it’s been mentally taxing for the parents as well.

We don’t have many Pass/Fail tests anymore for eight year-old children in the United States anymore.  It’s been systemically removed from schools for this age group.  Without causing Aidan added stress for this situation, it’s hard to convey a sense of urgency to him about how he should perform. As parents, we always encourage our kids to do their best or try their hardest – but in reality we know that maximum effort doesn’t always come out.

I’ve also tried to remain as detached as possible from this entire event – apart from driving Aidan to and from the tryout and waiting while he plays.  Some of the parents stand up and help their kids during each water break, as well as signing them in each night.  I want Aidan to be independent in this event – because he will be independent in many aspects of soccer if he makes the team.

One more night, and then a nervous couple of days until the results.

The Optimism of A Eight Year Old

14 May

“Dad, they can still win.”

Aidan said those words to me as we watched the Manchester City – Queens Park Rangers match this morning.  It was about eighty-eight minutes into the match and City was trailing 2-1.  League rivals Manchester United were at the same point winning 1-0.

A City loss and United win would mean United would win the Premier League again.

I had my doubts.  City had failed to capitalize for the entire second half against a short-handed Queens Park Rangers.

As the clocked ticked past ninety minutes into stoppage time, it started to happen.

First Edin Džeko scored on a corner to place City even in the match – but still trailing Manchester United in the league.

We screamed in amazement.

Just moments later, Sergio Aguero finds his way through the defense on a ball from Mario Balotelli to score the winning goal.

Again, we screamed and cheered.

Our reaction wasn’t unique – check out Sky Sports reaction to the turn of events.

This is why we watch sports.  There is no fictional story, movie or show that can compare to a team moving from certain defeat to league champion while at the same time defeating their arch rivals for the title.

Debating the Merits of Academy Soccer

11 May

Beginning officially at U9, Georgia Soccer has two categories of Soccer.

Recreation is the normal track that the majority of players continue on.  Clubs play intramural games primarily, with a lower intensity of training and programs suitable for all levels of play – from players entering the sport for the first time to players who started at four years old.

Academy is the option for players who are more dedicated to the sport and expect to continue in the sport for more than the next several years.  There is supposed to be a focus on player development versus winning matches.

Our club also introduces a “Pre-Academy” for the U8 age group.  The U8 Pre-Academy plays against U10 Recreation teams and is supposed to have the same focus on development as the U9 and above Academy track.

There are several large differences between Academy (and Pre-Academy at our club) and Recreation teams.

Coaching is probably the biggest difference.  Recreation at our club is coached by volunteer coaches (primarily parents of players) with the aide of professional trainers who provide about 1/2 of the content of practice time and focus on providing players with the technical ball skills needed to progress in the sport.

Academy is coached by professional coaches.  In Georgia, a State “E” license or above is required for coaching Academy teams – but it’s common to see many clubs with higher licensed USSF coaches coaching Academy teams.  In theory, this means better instruction and coaching that applies the current philosophy in US Soccer to stress on ball development and the other facets of the US Soccer curriculum.

Recreation is coached by parent volunteers.  I’ve been a volunteer coach in U5, U6, U7 and U8 at our club for two full seasons.  There are many recreation coaches with great passion for the sport, and bring their own experience in playing the game to the sport.  Like myself, some have taken the steps needed to become a licensed coach from the state federation (I hold Georgia Soccer F and G certificates.)  But like the difference between a professional educator teaching a class and a parent helping their child with homework.

Academy teams receive another advantage – practice time.  In Pre-Academy versus U8 Recreation this is especially pronounced – U8 Pre-Academy receives two 90 minute practices each week.  U8 Recreation practices once a week for 60 minutes.  The extra two hours of practice time provides an enormous potential for growth at this age group.  In U9 and U10, the practice time is still unequal but less so – Recreation practices two hours per week and Academy three hours per week.

Of course, this comes at a price.

Recreation soccer at our club is $150 per season (thus $300 for the year) for the U10 age group and up.  U8 and below is $120 per season ($240 per year).

Academy soccer is $1000 per year, with additional fees required for kit ($160 every two years) and tournaments and supplemental training.  For those considering switching, this is probably the single greatest impediment to making the jump – a $800 difference in price tag.

How it Plays in Our Home

Our feelings on Academy are mixed.

There aren’t many families where the prospect of $1000+ per child per year on Soccer is without concern.  It does figure into our decision on what to allow Aidan and Evan to do – since if both shift into Academy (and eventually Select) it would significantly change our future financial picture.  I refuse to consider it as an investment into that college scholarship that so many parents buy into: there are too many players nationwide for this to be a serious possibility.  Obviously another $1000 each into their 529 Savings Plan would go much further.

Another concern in our family is the consideration of the role of soccer in our sons’ lives.  Both of them greatly enjoy playing soccer, and want to continue playing.  We want to ensure that they continue to feel this way!  While there’s no guarantee in either Recreation or Academy on the quality of fit between their personality and the coach’s personality, the assumption is that in Academy there is a higher expectation of performance and a perceived higher degree of pressure during practices and matches.

The time commitment is a direct offshoot of this – as it might be possible with both in Academy we could have four evenings of practices a week.  Our Saturdays might be split between two soccer parks in different parts of the Atlanta metro area.

It’s also taking them down the road of specialization.  With the higher cost of Academy and the multi-night practices, we would be forced to drop Tae Kwon Do.  Three nights of Tae Kwon Do wouldn’t mix with two nights of practices plus matches.  I’m not sure they are in Tae Kwon Do for the long run anyway – but it might be earlier than they would have ended it otherwise.  Stats Dad had an excellent multi-article series on the difficulties of being a two sport youth athlete that’s definitely worth reading.

But I do think there is a lot of upside to the experience.

Both of my sons excel in soccer and academically.  I attribute a part of their academic success to having great teachers at school who have inspired them to excel and given them the tools they need to do so.  I would expect the same to occur under the right coach on the pitch.

Playing with other players with similar interest level and skills would also help them raise their abilities.  Recreation for us has been a regular turn of players on Aidan’s team – mostly players new to the sport mixing through the team each season.  While Evan’s team has been constant, Evan’s interest in soccer has greatly outpaced his teammates so far.

The Debate Continues

Tryouts for Academy are the week following Memorial Day.  Until both complete tryouts and are slotted on teams, this remains a theoretical discussion.

Consumers No Longer

24 Apr

In the Fall, I noted that my sons were living on the edge of being consumers and participants on their soccer team and with soccer in general.

Both were in a place with soccer that they didn’t pick up the ball between practices and didn’t work on their skills for their Fast Track training regularly enough to improve.  They enjoyed practice, and they enjoyed their match – but they were not investing time in playing away from the confines of the team.

With three weeks of practices and matches left in our Spring season, I can stay that both have moved themselves solidly into participants and often are creators.

Evan (soon to be six years old) has been really well engaged with improving himself in Soccer – or just playing more, even if it’s by himself.  He will go outside with a ball and work on dribbling and juggling, or find me to play 1v1, passing or any other skills he can think of.

Aidan has also improved himself.  We worked on Saturday afternoon after his game – he wanted to help me prepare for my match on Sunday.  He came up with some drills for us to run.

When they get together, they’ve started playing more 1v1 against each other.  I sometimes join them as a neutral player that they can pass and receive from.

It’s a really positive step to see both of them take.

I think there’s a wide range of contributing factors that have helped move to this step.

Pickup Soccer through the winter months and during Spring break was a big step for both of them.  It removed each of them from the “spectacle” of youth sports and placed them into an environment where neither was a dominant player but that both could learn from older players.

The interest that the Premier League and Champions League matches in recent weeks have brought to our home has also been a factor.  While both have been watching at least parts of matching, it gives a lot of inspiration to dreams and conversation.  Just like my brother and I would play the World Series when we would play baseball as a child, my kids are playing Chelsea versus Barcelona (Drogba versus Messi) in the front yard.

Finally, I think both see themselves in some shape as a leader on their soccer teams.  In both cases, they are among the leading scorers on their teams.  Evan has taken to helping some of his newer teammates on his U6 team with skills work.  Both have a firm understanding of the sport’s rules and during practice take on a leading role in scrimmages for restarts and disputes.

As a Dad, and a Coach – it’s rewarding to see.  It gives me a lot of confidence that they can move on to be coached by others and even participate in our club’s Academy to higher success.  While I don’t claim that either will be the most talented player on their team – they are already taking steps to convert work ethic into on-field performance.

Optimism

9 Apr

My son Evan, all of five years old tonight asked me how Barcelona FC found Lionel Messi.  I explained to him in a short way about scouts and the youth academy system in Europe.

He thinks for a minute.

He then says to me, “Dad, I think I need to go to Manchester City instead.  I don’t know many Spanish words.”

It is fabulous how the mind of a five year old dreams, isn’t it?

Cultivating Love of the Game

27 Mar

It’s amazing the speed at which enjoyment of the sport can turn into a love of the game.

Evan started playing team soccer about nineteen months ago.  At that point, I didn’t know if he would enjoy it.  He enjoyed playing it in U5 and became successful quickly.

But in the past seven months he’s gone from enjoying playing the sport to having a passion for everything about soccer – the culture, the gear, playing the game on Wii and watching the matches on Television.  This morning when the television came on during breakfast he watched several minutes of Fox Soccer’s highlight show.

His favorite player: FC Barcelona’s Lionel Messi.  I think that comes from his shared uniform number (10), Messi’s domination on the FIFA 12 game, and probably an allegiance to a similarly sized player to him.

It’s fascinating to watch the games with him, but I would love to see it through his eyes.  I’m hoping in the next few days he can express what he sees and what it’s like for him to play and experience soccer.

Red Shirting versus Playing Up

5 Mar

In the United States university athletic system, the term “Red Shirt” refers to placing a player in an inactive status for his first season to give him time to develop – sometimes in cases of academics but often for physical development.  The player retains his four years of eligibility for playing.

Apparently, it’s also an emerging trend for five year-olds – typically the age when children start their primary education in the United States at the Kindergarten level.  For kids at the young end of the spectrum, it’s meant to help level the playing field for them.  It gives them time to catch up to the older kids in terms of emotional and educational development so that as they age, they stay on course with learning.
For anyone who has read the book Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell, this all should sound familiar.  With many youth sports in the United States culminating in High School (grade based) athletics before the end of the athlete’s career or eventual recruiting to Collegiate athletics, holding back kids also helps in sports development.

Evan, our younger son, is at the young end of his age group.  He has a late May birthday, with the control date for entry to school being August.  Thus most of the Kindergarten class has earlier birth days than Evan does.

Likewise, Georgia Soccer uses August 1 as the cutoff date for each age group – placing Evan as a U6 athlete this year.  I can verify that he is the youngest player on his team and is probably average sized among his age group.

So does that leave him desperately trying to keep up on the pitch and in the classroom?  Not at all.

In school, he is reading as well as his brother did when he was in First Grade and is beginning to master basic math, spelling and other skills.

On the pitch, he is accustomed to being a dominant player on either team.  He has more confidence with the ball than many kids playing in U7 and U8, as well as an emerging eye for playing in complimentary style with other players and shows a lot of patience when in possession of the ball to work for a shot or get open.

My Dilemma

As his Dad and his Coach, I want to encourage him to stay engaged with the sport.  He loves to play, but right now he’s lacking in opportunity to play with other players at his level or with his interest in the sport.

Intermediate Steps

Last fall, I enrolled Evan into our club’s “Fast Track” skills program.  While the age range for the session was to start at U7, I discussed Evan joining the group with the Coach.  He didn’t see a problem as long as I thought Evan could self-manage and keep up with the group.  After an initial adjustment, he was a competent member of the class and kept up well.

Part of my plan with pick-up soccer over the winter was to help my sons get exposure to older, higher ability and more experienced players.  Playing within their age groups, they see such a limited set of players – but with pick-up we expanded their view of the game to include players in the upper-end of the Elementary School age group and both Recreational and Academy players.

As the season has started in the past two weeks, Evan has stepped into to attend the U8 team practice as well and participate in the “Team” part of the practice for about 30 minutes each week.  Most of that time is spent playing 4v4 (Evan’s attendance is partly out of need – assuming full practice attendance we would have only seven players at practice.)  Evan kept up with the rest of the team despite already playing with his own team’s practice.

What’s Next

Evan will be the U8 team’s stand-in if we should run into any weeks where we will be short on players – six players or less planning to attend the match.  I’m expecting this to come up at least once, as the usual absences for vacations, Boy Scouts and other activities take numbers from our team.  I’m interested to see how he performs in a match with the U8 team – I think he will perform well.

Fall Season

It’s hard to look ahead when we just started Spring two weeks ago.  But – I’m really contemplating attempting to get him into our club’s pre-Academy group for the Fall.  Although this starts with the U8 age group, I think he’s a good candidate for it.

He’s proven to be really teachable, both in Soccer and a classroom.  He’s generally well disciplined and he has the passion for the sport that would help any player.

The drawback I see to playing in pre-Academy though is the format of the game doesn’t favor him.  U8 Pre-Academy plays in our club’s U10 Recreation age group – which means playing on a 75 yard pitch in 6v6 play (instead of 5v5 on a 50 yard pitch in our U7 and U8 age group).   Of course larger pitch would mean more physical demands on him, and the 6v6 format would be fewer touches each game.

The upside is big though – moving into an environment where he gets at least two professionally coached training sessions per week and better instruction than I can provide.

It might be a hybrid of the two options that works in the end – playing U7 in the Fall and then trying to jump to Academy in the Spring.

As a coach, age group director, or parent – how would you suggest a player progress?