Tag Archives: Youth Sports

Good Soccer

17 Mar

As a former coach, I have been fascinated watching both Aidan (U9) and Evan (U8) play their matches this spring.

Evan’s Future Academy group has transitioned from playing 3v3 soccer last fall into 4v4 (including a goalkeeper) this spring. The coaches have placed a heavy emphasis on shape, playing out from the back and using back passes to help open space.

When I coached Aidan in U8 last spring, we spent a lot of time trying to get a basic shape established and get the players to see that straight ahead wasn’t the only direction to play the ball. With Evan still two months shy of seven years old, he has learned to maintain shape, play the direction he’s facing, and work with teammates in a pressure and coverage defensive scheme.

Game days are also a dramatic change from recreation soccer experience. Parents aren’t screaming the whole game to shoot and pass. The kids talk on the field. Far less time is spent out of the game waiting to substitute. Even probably spent 60 minutes playing yesterday and 10 minutes waiting to play. Most recreation soccer was a 50/50 playing and sitting mix.

Aidan and his team have really shown improvement as well, both since the start of play last summer and the tournament a month ago.

One of the biggest changes I’ve seen in Aidan is also related to shape, timing and placement of runs. Adan has become stronger at knowing where space is open and looking to be open for the pass.

He’s also taken up a leadership role on the field – looking to ensure that opponents are covered on throw-ins and other dead ball situations. It’s all been really great to see in him.

His level of confidence with the ball has increased versus fall as well.

Academy soccer has been a great experience so far. Both our sons have developed a lot of skill, and become smarter in play. Consistency in training groups and teammates also has allowed them to extend friendships with teammates. More often when they return home from school, they are outside with a ball playing instead of inside on electronics.

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.

When Players Can Stay Calm, They Can Succeed

30 Apr

Two weeks ago we played a match and got caught up in the other side’s game of booting the ball as hard and far as possible.

Saturday morning was the opposite – while our opponent often sent the ball far down field, we managed to keep composure and play the soccer that we wanted to play.

Post spring break, our lead scorer had seen a change in his playing behavior.  While earlier in the season he had been a great dribbler and used skills to beat defenders, after the break he had a tendency to pull the trigger much earlier and was shooting from just inside of midfield (albeit with power).  The result was the ball going high over the goal or wide of the goal.

Saturday I focused my pre-game preparation with them on playing possession (keep-away) and then gave them some specific roles on the field.

Our Goalkeepers and Defenders need to make a smart pass to a player in open space.

Receiving players need to carry the ball up the pitch until they encounter resistance.  When they meet resistance they need to work on finding a teammate or beating the opponent with a good turn or move.

Shots should be taken closer to the box and then followed to pick up rebounds.

Our forward needs to pressure the ball in our offensive half when we lose possession.

But more than anything, I tried to emphasize staying calm and taking your time on the ball.

One of our parents this week brought a portable bench – and I took a seat as the game started and talked with our substitute player during the first quarter of the game.  I’ve always tried to say less specific instruction during the game – but perhaps being seated with a player took this a step further and relieved some pressure from the players on the field.

We put two goals in the net in the first quarter through using skills and persistence on defense.  The second quarter went by scoreless and then we scored three more in the second half.

We kept a clean sheet for the first time this season (and the first of any team I’ve coached).  There was good luck involved in that – one of their shots bounced off of the post – but we also kept them out of the box and our goalkeeper was rarely hung out solo in the back with the defender beat by a move.

We had two players score their first goals of the season!  That brings a total of five different players on our team that have scored this season.  This is a better ratio than I’ve seen on any of the U7 or U8 teams I’ve coached over the past fourteen months.

We have two matches left this season – I’m hoping we can continue what we did Saturday into the last two weeks of the season.

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.

We Played Ugly Soccer

14 Apr

We played a team that played ugly soccer, and we reflected their style after the first twelve minutes.

Both of our teams were back in action today after a two Saturday hiatus for spring break.  Going into the break, we had played both days of a weekend and then took two Fridays (practices) and two Saturdays off.  Friday night we practiced and this afternoon was our game.

I wouldn’t say our U8 team is great by any definition.  We have a mix of players – but in the last couple games before the break, we started to show signs of playing intelligent football.  Our goalkeeper and defender distributed the ball to the rest of the field players well, and we generally did a good job of defending and closing down the opponent’s space.  My goals with our team though have been to emphasize playing under control, maximizing dribbling times and making controlled passes as a decision versus instinctive deep kicks.

Within the first twelve minutes, I could see that our opponent didn’t have these goals in mind.  The defender’s first touch sent the ball deep, and the other team regularly knocked the ball out of bounds when trying to close down an attacker.

In U8, it’s not necessarily a bad style of play if you consider the outcomes.  By sending the ball deep downfield, you get instant penetration and you might be able to regularly achieve a 1v1 situation with a defender plus the goalkeeper or even 1v1 against the keeper.

Our team was easily influenced by watching our opponents play this way – and I think our parents as well.  We came off the field after the first twelve minutes for subsitutions tied at one – their goal the result of a throw-in that the other team moved past our cluster of players to open space on the opposite side and our one goal the result of intercepting the ball in the midfield, a good dribble and shot.

But the opposition moved a bigger-legged kid to defender in the second quarter – and he regularly blasted the ball downfield on first touch (there were a few that bounced once before going out of bounds on the opposite end.)  The crowd cheered every time the kid blasted it away.

And soon our kids were seduced to the dark side.

We talked at half time about it.

I asked our team, “How many goals did they score in the second quarter from all of those big kicks?”

“None.”

“Do you think they work to help score goals?”

“Maybe.”

“How?”

Silence.

I encouraged the team to return to playing with our eyes, ears and heads in the second half.

When the third quarter hit, our defender’s first touch had the same crushing impact – the ball rocketing downfield before going out of bounds.  After a few minutes, ping-pong set in and I knew we were done for the day.

I sat down for several minutes rather than say anything more.  My words were lost versus the cheers from the parents sideline.

Our opponents scored one more in the third quarter, and then we pulled even in the fourth.  Another member of our team scored his first goal of the season.

We did have some positives this week – most notably on throw-ins.  While we still had problems with making legal throw-ins (as usual in any U8 match) we found a lot more open space this week on throws and regularly chose not to throw the ball into a cluster of the other team.  Progress!

Next week I’m hoping to address the ugly play in practice though – I just need a plan of how to get there.

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.

Two Days, Four Matches

26 Mar

This weekend was our make-up date from our rained out matches from the first week of March.  It also happened to fall on the last weekend of practice and play we would have before our school system, and our club go on Spring break.

I held an evening of pick-up soccer on Thursday evening, working against the assumption that we would be unable to practice Friday night due to storms expected to pass through metro Atlanta on Friday.  While some parts of the metro area had the weather, it stayed South of our practice and game fields.  Thus for the four players from the U8 team who came out Thursday night, we had four straight days of play.  It showed for three of them in a very good way.

Thursday Pick-Up

We had four players from the U8 team, plus Evan and another U6 player for pick up on Thursday night.   I joined the group and we played 4v3 – initially in a straightforward style and later with a “Real Madrid” game that I had seen online where the goals are placed in the center of the playing area, back to back.  The idea is to force the players to work on switching the point of attack and taking up a better shape to move the ball.  I’m not sure they entirely did that, but I saw progression in several of the players in taking up a better shape to support the ball carrier.

Friday Practices

Evan was ill Friday afternoon and missed Friday’s practice.  His team worked on dribbling – specifically inside and outside turns in the technical training.  We worked on 1v1 play again in our part of the practice and then played 3v2.  Instead of running the game with kick-offs or any restarts, I blew the whistle after each goal (or out of play ball) and played in a new ball to keep the players moving.  A lot of goals, but also progression from some players on defending 1v1.

The U8 team worked on dribbling as well in their technical session – with the same turns, as well as pullbacks and a simple reverse.  With the U8’s, it frustrates me to see some of the better players (on match day) loafing through the technical training instead of trying to do things faster and sharper.

Our part of the session was spent playing as much 4v3 as we could.  I stopped the group several times to work on some shape and strategy on restarts.  During matches, I’ve seen too many instances of players putting a throw-in into a crowd of the other team (even though there was no one on our team in the group) or into a crowd of both teams because they happened to be in the direction of the goal.  In many instances, there is a teammate straight in front of them not being marked at all and a wealth of open space.

I modified the rules in the second part of practice for both teams to use me as a wall pass or neutral player.  It was a great innovation and some of the players really did well with the idea and took advantage of it when they got in trouble.  I had the full run of one sideline.  Players looked up, found me, made a pass and then made a run to open space.

Our end of practice review had the phrase “open space” repeated multiple times – I was hopeful it would sink in.

U6 Matches

Evan missed his U6 match on Saturday morning.  This gave his five teammates some extra time to play but also seemed to motivate the team to try harder.  In fact, everyone on the team scored at least one goal.  That’s probably the best match a U6 coach can ask for – everyone on the team to score!  It makes it easy for everyone to go away happy.

There were players heading in opposite directions through the weekend.  One of my players who’s stayed with us through U5 and U6 really excelled this weekend.  He did a great job with dribbling and control and seemed really dialed in to where play was going. One of my players from the Fall has gotten noticeably more timid since the Fall.  I’m hoping more playing time will bring him back out of his shell – but it seems like he’s afraid to touch the ball more than briefly or dribble the ball.

Our Sunday match was different.  While Evan was back, he was noticeably weaker on field from being sick and low on energy for two days.  But there were several times when the ball was between two of our players and neither seemed to want to touch the ball.

I’m not sure what to do next in practice – but it might be a full night of dribbling and dropping a scrimmage or small-sided game.  My U5’s last spring just seemed to be in a different point than the U6’s this spring.

U8 Matches

Our Saturday match for the U8 team was our side’s first win this Fall.  We took a 7-5 victory against a similarly skilled team.  I don’t think it was close to our best overall performance though (which was week 1) although we had a pair of outstanding quarters.

Our first half was well played.  I was most impressed by how the ball was distributed from the back forward.  One of our returning players from the Fall anchored our defense.  I’ve been working on him from the fall, and through this spring to stop kicking the ball deep on first touch.  And Saturday he followed through with it!  He made good decisions with the ball to teammates on the wings of the field and we were able to consistently attack the goal in the first quarter.  At the same time, our front line moved back with the ball and helped make plays on defense.

That fell down later in the game as we had several instances of players not helping out enough on defense and the opponent getting enough time and space to take repeated shots on goal. I also encouraged them to try to hold the ball up longer in the fourth quarter but they still played the same tempo of attack as earlier in the game.

Our offense also came from one player’s foot (entirely!) so it was disappointing to see the other players on the team not participating in the offense.

Our Sunday match was a better effort from the full team.  We were one player short of full, so everyone picked up at least three quarters of our 48 minute match.  We conceded two early goals on the same mistakes that allowed five goals Saturday – players not falling back on defense and playing throw-ins too tight to the line.  There was more than one instance where the opponent put a throw-in over the heads of our entire team to an open man on the other team, and one time it was right in front of our goal.  Maybe the team will start noticing.

Our performance on our throw-ins was better today – more often getting the ball to that open man, even if it was the defender.  When the defender received it, he had time and space to have a good first touch and then make a good decision about how to handle the ball.

The fourth quarter was our best quarter of the match.  We had a similar team in place to our first quarter from the prior day – and they worked in the same smart manner.  We missed on several shots, including one over the crossbar at the final whistle and wen home with a 2-1 loss.

It’s been a great season so far – we’ve been competitive in every match so far.

And the Bonuses

With two matches each day, and downtime in between- Aidan and I stayed at our club’s fields and just spent time watching other teams play and playing together.  This varied between working on volleys, goalkeeping, jockeying for the ball and passing – but it was time well spent.  He expressed interest Sunday in playing Academy in the fall – which I had talked to him before but received a measured, cool response about participation.  I think he’s seeing friends moving in that direction and is feeling it’s the way to go.  I also think playing four days in a row has helped build his interests in playing more often.

I also managed to get twenty-five minutes of time kicking the ball around with my new team in Sunday before the kids’ matches.  I’m really looking forward to our season starting in a few weeks.