October 14, 2008
Why Sideline Screaming Can Stifle Your Child's Game

By Mike Woitalla from AYSO's PLAYSOCCER Magazine.

Imagine you're undertaking a fairly difficult task: assembling a piece of furniture with hieroglyphic instructions, filling out IRS Form 4562 on April 14, or standing on the highest rungs of a ladder painting the crown moulding in your living room with 14-foot ceilings. Think it would help if someone yelled at you during the process? Of course not.

Yet when a child tries to control a bouncing ball in a crowd of other kids, adults often believe it's perfectly acceptable to scream "advice." The shouting at America's soccer fields is so epidemic one wonders if adults ever reflect on their behavior. Adults who would never shout at children while they're enjoying the playground, drawing in a coloring book, or rearranging their dollhouse, loudly instruct from the sidelines without hesitation.

When adults scream from the sidelines they’re not just invading the children’s playtime, they’re preventing children from learning the game of soccer in a natural manner. The shouting is detrimental to the children’s development as soccer players and at worst can turn them off to the sport entirely.

If parents want to help their children become better soccer players, they can offer to kick the ball around with them in the backyard. But sideline instructions deny children a chance to make their own decisions, it stifles their creative instincts, and all too often the instructions are misguided.

When a player has the ball there are generally three options: dribble, pass or shoot. In the long-term, the great players are the ones who choose wisely most of the time. But if, when they’re first learning the sport, that decision is being made for them with a scream from the sideline, how can we expect them to develop the soccer instincts they’ll need to make the split-second decisions that are so much a part of the game?

“We don’t want to turn the children into parrots waiting for someone to tell them what to do,” says John Ouellette, AYSO National Coach. “Soccer is a free-flowing game for children to enjoy and learn from playing. As an organization, we discourage sideline instruction not just from parents but also from coaches.”

During the first stage of soccer development it is essential that the children are allowed to discover the game on their own terms. High-level coaches constantly complain that players come through the ranks dependent on instructions because they’ve been bossed around in the early stages -- being told where to run and when to pass. They also cite a dearth of truly creative players -- the ones with the ability to make the unpredictable moves -- blaming the lack of freedom children are afforded during their early years.

Much of the sideline screaming comes from ignorance about the stages of development. While most parents would know that addition and subtraction must be mastered before algebra is introduced, at the soccer field they often expect children to perform maneuvers they are simply not capable of.

AYSO Hall of Famer Sigi Schmid is a former youth coach who coached UCLA to an NCAA title before entering the MLS ranks and winning a crown with the Los Angeles Galaxy. He stresses that coaches and parents must appreciate how young players learn the game.

Schmid says, “The first thing is, ‘It’s me and the ball.’ The second is, ‘It’s me and the ball and where’s the opponent?’ Then it’s, ‘It’s me and the ball, and where’s the opponent, where’s my teammate?’ He’s taking on more information. That’s how he develops.”

The screams from the sideline interfere with this process -- besides often being misguided and counterproductive. To take a few examples:

* “PASS IT! PASS IT!” Discouraging dribbling in the early years is like telling toddlers to shut up when they’re learning to speak. Young players should be encouraged to dribble -- because dribbling is the first step to mastering all ball skills -- and there are far better ways to introduce a passing game when children are ready to comprehend teamwork. The passing game enters soccer at the later stages and one will notice that the children themselves will ask each other for the ball.

* SPREAD OUT! Just because the first years of youth soccer look chaotic doesn’t mean the children aren’t learning. In fact, it’s perfectly fine that they all chase the ball in a swarm. Sooner or later they’ll figure out how to take advantage of time and space. They’ll comprehend positioning by exploring the field, not by being treated like chess pieces.

* SHOOT! SHOOT! SHOOT! This usually comes from an ear-piercing parent-coach chorus as a child dribbles toward the goal and I have little doubt that were it eliminated from the soccer fields of America we’d see more goals in the youth game.

Even the youngest, most novice player knows they are supposed to shoot the ball to score. And can it possibly help a child perform the difficult task of striking the ball while running as fast as they can by being screamed at during the process?

Moreover, the “shoot” scream encourages players to pull the trigger earlier than they should. How do great players score on breakaways? They usually wait until they get close to the goalkeeper. It’s much harder for the keeper to save a shot from four yards away than from 15. There’s also the option of rounding the keeper, especially when a patient attacker forces the keeper to commit.

Shooting advice I often hear from high-level players is not to rush the shot -- that players often have a little more time than they realize. As young players learn to cope with the high-pressure clear to young players which goal their team is aiming at. But what I’m talking about is the outrage that often greets a smart young player who retreats with the ball to move out of the bunch. Watch a game played by sophisticated players and you’ll find that they’re constantly moving the ball in all directions to find space and time.

Young players taking the ball away from the crowd are the clever ones. Will they sometimes put their team at risk? Maybe. But so what? Giving up a goal in a U-8 game isn’t nearly as important as allowing young players how to figure out how to keep possession.

“ATTACK THE BALL!” or “GO GET HIM!” is apparently meant to encourage a defending player to charge an opponent who has the ball at their feet. But in soccer, the defender wants to jockey into a good position to keep the attacker at bay. He wants to avoid over-committing and instead needs to figure out the right time to get a chance at the ball. It’s a matter of positioning and timing that players master by facing the situation over and over again -- not by taking cues from the sideline.

Perhaps the inclination to scream instructions comes from a well-intentioned desire to help children “learn.” But when does screaming at children help educate them? When a child wanders toward a busy street, moves too close to a hot oven, or starts beating on little brother -- OK, that might warrant a roar.

But does screaming at a child while you’re assisting him with math homework help? Very doubtful. And certainly children should be allowed to play soccer without getting yelled at. Then they’ll be able to pay attention to the best teacher of all: the game itself.

October 05, 2008
Kaz Tambi guides top U.S. girls

"The second issue is we don't see large quantities of soccer brains. That's a product of a local youth soccer environment where there's too much focus on competing in leagues and traveling from tournament to tournament while missing the important elements."

-- Kaz Tambi, coach of the U.S. U-17 girls national team.

Tambi was profiled in the October 2008 issue of Soccer America by Mike Woitalla

As a teenager, Kazbek Tambi constantly checked the New York Cosmos' schedule. When a road game on natural grass came next, Tambi knew Pele, Beckenbauer and Chinaglia were coming to town.

That would prompt Tambi to hop on his bike and ride 20 minutes from Ridgewood to Bergen Community College in Paramus, where the star-studded Cosmos went to escape the artificial turf of Giants Stadium.

"I could figure out when they'd be practicing on grass for three or four days," says Tambi, who is now the U.S. girls U-17 national team coach. "Then I'd go see my heroes.

"Sometimes it meant missing some school, but as soon as the training was over, I would shoot right back to school and typically get back by noon. Fortunately my parents only looked at the grades on my report card and not the disparity in the number of absences between my morning and afternoon classes."

Those grades were good enough that Tambi went on to Colombia University, where he won four Ivy league crowns, reached the final four and captained the team. Upon graduating with an economics degree, Tambi was drafted by the New York Cosmos.

Players whom he was once thrilled to watch now trained alongside Tambi. The Italian scoring phenom Chinaglia was still with the team that included two-time World Cup finalist Johan Neeskens of the Netherlands and Paraguayan star Roberto Cabanas.

Tambi's parents, immigrants from Russia, had never seen much of Kaz on the soccer field, but they did make it to Giants Stadium.

"They were immigrants struggling to make ends with blue-collar jobs and they didn't get many chances to come out and see me play," said Tambi, a sweeper. "The funny thing is, my mom started giving me advice on how to improve."

Tambi, who was born in Paterson, N.J., was also selected to the 1984 U.S. Olympic team. When a last-minute decision was made to use professional players, many of the amateurs were cut and replaced by indoor pros. Tambi made the team but didn't see action.

But the NASL folded after Tambi's first season with the Cosmos. He played for the ASL's New Jersey Eagles in the ASL and the Minnesota Strikers of the indoor MISL.

But indoor ball didn't suit Tambi, so he got a law degree at Seton Hall. In 1999, he became the Seton Hall men's assistant coach to Manfred Schellscheidt, the man who had brought Tambi into the 1984 Olympic team.

Tambi practiced law in the first part of the day and afterward he coached. His also coached youth ball at Arsenal World Class, a top New Jersey girls program. He eventually gave up practicing law for full-time soccer, becoming Seton Hall's women's coach in 2007.

In 2005, Tambi was named coach of the U.S. U-16 girls national team and he will guide the U-17 girls in the first FIFA U-17 Girls World Cup.

Tambi is confident he's found the nation's top young players for the team.

"Unlike the boys side," he says, "at this level I don't think you have as much hidden talent."

Tambi is impressed with quality of his players and sees significant progress in the last decade in female talent. But in his overall assessment of the female game nationwide, he does see room for improvement.

"The physical end is squared away," he says. "Athletically, that's no concern. But, even though they have a better technical foundation than a decade ago, more improvement in the technical end should be the emphasis.

"The second issue is we don't see large quantities of soccer brains. That's a product of a local youth soccer environment where there's too much focus on competing in leagues and traveling from tournament to tournament while missing the important elements."

Tambi says he's charged with the mutual goals of doing well at the world championship and developing players for the full national team.

The U-17 Girls World Cup kicks off in New Zealand on Oct. 28.

The USA, which qualified under Tambi by outscoring its opponents 29-2 in five games, is a favorite at the championship along with Germany and North Korea.

(This article originally appeared in the October 2008 issue of Soccer America magazine.)

October 01, 2008
Has Development Academy shifted the focus?

The U.S. Soccer Development Academy's launch in 2007 promised to improve youth soccer for elite boys. We checked in with clubs that participated in the Academy's first season to see if the program met expectations.

By Mike Woitalla, Soccer America Magazine

By joining the U.S. Soccer Development Academy, 62 of the nation's top youth boys clubs removed their players from the traditional youth soccer scene that included state cups, frequent tournaments, local and regional league play and ODP tryouts.

With the Academy, launched in the summer 2007, the U.S. Soccer Federation integrated the youth clubs into the national team program, promising that players would be scouted while they played in the Academy's U-15/16 and U-17/18 leagues.

The Academy format aimed to increase the number of quality games while reducing the overall amount of games and emphasizing player development over trophy-collecting.

"We need to shift the focus of our young elite players from an 'overburdened, game emphasis' model to a 'meaningful training and competition' model," said U.S. Soccer President Sunil Gulati. "This will ultimately lead to more success and will allow players to develop to their full potential."

Soccer America surveyed directors of coaching and club officials for their views on the Academy, which entered its second season in September with 74 teams (all 62 teams returning and 12 new teams).

The main question was whether the Academy provided a significantly more beneficial environment for players than their previous experience.

Brad Butwin, the vice president of New York's Albertson SC, said that his players benefited from having fewer distractions without all the competing activities, like ODP, Super Y-League, regional premier leagues, state cups and tournaments.

"The Academy format provides the teams with quality matches throughout the year," Butwin said. "Almost all of the matches
were tightly contested."

Said Real Colorado's Jared Spires, "Instead of being awarded a championship for playing well over a week, it takes a consistent year-round effort to play for the championships. This alone has taken pressure off our young players and allowed them to play with more creativity and flair."

David Dengerink of the Virginia Rush said the Academy addressed the problem of basing levels of competition on results in state cups and major tournaments. Playing four games in 48 hours to determine another trophy, he said, led to an emphasis on strength and fitness over technical and tactical development.

"Every game we play is against quality opposition," says Ryan Austin of Atlanta Fire United. "The practice-to-game ratio makes much more sense. There is a minimized threat of burnout and less chance of injury. We are no longer playing five games in two or three days against usually mediocre competition. When you do that you spend half of the following week just recovering and regenerating instead of working toward your next game."

Steve Trittschuh of the Colorado Rush said his team usually only played two or three very competitive games in a season: "Now every game is challenging."

Gary MacMath of Florida's Clearwater SC said that in the past, 75 percent of his team's games weren't competitive.

"In the Academy, 100 percent of the games are high-paced, competitive matches," he said.

Los Angeles FC finished second to the Baltimore Bays in the U-17/18 age group.

"Normally we would play up to 60 games a year, and maybe five were competitive," said LAFC director of coaching Teddy Chronopoulos. "Now we play 30 competitive games, and all of them challenge our players mentally and physically."

Derek Armstrong of Southern California's Nomads FC said, "The competition level is consistent and much better than our previous
competition to develop players. ... I do believe that decisions made within the academy are based on the 'good of the game' as a starting point."

One change from regular youth ball is limited substitution - seven subs, no reentry.

"Players are now placed in an environment where they have to manage the game," said Leigh Cowlishaw of the Richmond Kickers. "Coaches have less influence on the outcome as they are unable to continually substitute players in and out to create an artificially fast pace."

Said Spires, "Players had to play through some of their struggles, solve problems while in the match, and at times play through fatigue, bumps and bruises. ... Likewise, coaches had to allow their players to solve problems in the game, fight through their struggles and encourage them to play through adversity."

Craig Conger of North Carolina's North Meck SC appreciates that the emphasis in Academy play is more on player development than on results.

"The subbing format affected the games and the management of them," he said. "Since the emphasis was not on winning - although we all want to win - we would allow a player who is struggling on the field to fight through it and experience difficulties rather than subbing quickly under the previous rules. Sometimes this was to the detriment of the team and a possible win, but it helps the players in the long run."

Lonny Unger, the president of New York's FC Westchester, said that just one season in the Academy has made a difference:

"I can say without question that our players, after the first year's experience, have improved dramatically - from our No. 1 player to the No. 20 player. This is because our players are training more and because each week they are playing against great competition."

One of the key components of the Academy is that national team scouts would observe players competing with their own teams, rather than relying on tryouts a la ODP to identify talent.

Josef Schluz, of the Schulz Academy in Boca Raton, Fla., never believed that weekend tryout camps in which players scrimmage all day long was a good way to identify talent. He is convinced playing Academy league games that are scouted by national team coaches is a far better method.

"One of great things about the Academy is the motivation it creates among the players," Schulz says. "They train knowing that they'll be watched by national team coaches when they play on the weekend for their club."

Coaches were pleased that their players were being watched by national team coaches and USSF staff coaches.

"Another big component that I am not sure we expected was the immediate feedback we were getting from the national staff - like from scouting director Tony Lepore and others on the national staff, up to and including [U.S. national team coach] Bob Bradley, who watched our entire U-18 game at the finals in L.A. in July," said Unger of FC Westchester. "That feedback has been hugely beneficial to our club, our players and our staff."

Said Real Colorado's Spires, "Some of our kids, who had struggled getting the right exposure through other avenues, were seen and invited into U.S. national team camps."

LAFC's Chronopoulos said, "The exposure our players have had over the past year is second to none."

Other aspects of the Academy that drew praise was the quality of the refereeing and playing fields, and the overall experience the players had at the Academy's four showcase events and the finals, which complemented league play.

While the USSF covers referee fees, travel to the finals, and charges only a $1 player registration fee, the main challenge faced by clubs is the cost of travel.

Most of the MLS teams that field Academy teams are cost-free to the players, and some clubs have sponsorships that defray costs. But the majority of players face a similar financial burden as they did under the previous system.

"Being who we are we struggle financially and will need serious help in this area to continue to provide the quality we are used to," said Milton A. Espinoza of New York City club Blau Weiss Gottschee. "We have to subsidize a lot of kids."

Espinoza does say that for players who participated in ODP, the cost is similar to what they paid pre-Academy.

Travel costs were particularly high for teams in conferences such as the West where air travel was required for most league games.

"The No. 1 thing that needs to be addressed is the cost," says Spires. "For kids in Colorado, the travel is extensive and the costs associated with travel aren't going down."

Cowlishaw of the Richmond Kickers says, "Although the cost per player has only increased slightly over our conventional travel program this is still concern for our families. ... Ultimately, we know this will have to be at no cost to our players."

Austin of Atlanta Fire United also says that the Academy's cost isn't much different when compared to what his players paid for travel tournaments and their registration fees, but that doesn't solve the pay-to-play problem.

"The only thing that needs to be improved upon is the communication to and from the USSF and the clubs in helping us find ways to help scholarship players," says Austin. "These players will fall through the cracks if something is not done soon."

Gulati says the Federation is still considering ways in which to address the financial burden on young players. Otherwise, the Academy after its first year seems to meeting expectations.

"I really think the Academy league is probably the second best thing that's happened in American soccer in the last 15 years," said Schluz. "The first was MLS's arrival and the second big step to improve American soccer is the Academy."

(This article originally appeared in the October 2008 issue of Soccer America magazine.)