December 30, 2008
Youth Beat: It's Wonderful To Win, But ...

There's universal agreement that a results-driven approach to youth soccer is a detriment to player development. And although ignoring the scoreline is easier said than done - it's worth the effort.

By Mike Woitalla (from the December issue of Soccer America)

As I sat down to write this article, in which I planned to deliver all sorts of advice on how to be a good youth coach, I was struck by a recollection of something I did while coaching 9-year-olds last Saturday.

It was halftime. The players chewed on orange wedges as if they hadn't been nourished in weeks. But a girl who had been goalkeeper for the last half of the first half spoke with the girl who was putting on the keeper's jersey for the start of the second half.

"I want to take the next goal kick, OK? Because I didn't get to take a goal kick when I was goalie," she said.

I piped in with, "No. It's better that the goalkeeper takes the goal kicks because then we have more players in the field."

Before the second-half whistle I realized how ridiculous I was being, but only now am I truly contemplating why I intervened and why I shouldn't have.

It's always a chore finding four volunteers for goalie in each game. Goal kicks were obviously one of the few things the girl enjoyed about being goalkeeper. She missed out on getting to take one, and here I was ruining a decent solution to her disappointment, and perhaps decreasing the chances that she would want to play goalkeeper in the future.

Moreover, the fact that two 9-year-olds were cooperating to make a decision on what they would do on the field displayed teamwork - only to be trounced by the coach.

Shame on me.

So why did I intervene? I'd like to think that I was giving them valuable soccer advice, but that's disingenuous. The truth is I was worried about giving up a goal, I was concerned with winning the game. I wanted the girl with the stronger shot to take the goal kick. I thought the other girl might kick it straight to an opponent.

But what if she did? She would have to try to make a tackle. Her defensive skills would be tested. If she failed to tackle, our keeper would have a chance to make a save, giving her some action. And if the other team did score, so what? The eager goal-kick taker may have learned something about how to aim her shot. And conceding a goal in a U-10 game really isn't such a big deal, now is it?

This may not have been the most egregious example of overcoaching or overemphasizing results. But it does demonstrate that as coaches of young players, we must constantly restrain ourselves from letting our competitive instincts interfere with the children's soccer experience.

PERFORMANCE OVER RESULTS. I am well aware of the many reasons why coaching a youth team to get results - rather than to focus on their technical skills - is a detriment to the long-term development of players. Every time I talk to U.S. youth national team coaches they cite (in addition to youth soccer's high cost) the overemphasis on results as the biggest problem in the American youth game.

They stress that coaching a team of young children to win now is a different approach than coaching young players to be winners in the future.

The U.S. Soccer Federation's "Best Practices" guide, a must-read for youth coaches, says: "The value of matches is that they provide youngsters with an opportunity to showcase their newly acquired skill and creativity. It is always nice to win, however, that should not be your focus at the younger age groups (through 14 years). ...

"At the youth level, a competitive environment is not a results-oriented environment. The differences must be clear. A competitive environment at the youth level encourages decisions from player and coach alike that focus on performance rather than results. (Favoring ball skills and inventiveness as the means to find success within the rules and spirit of the game.)"

Tony Lepore, who heads the U.S. Soccer Development Academy scouting department, says it is crucial to remind youth coaches that players "making mistakes is a really important part of learning and growing at these ages." Discouraging risk-taking - instructing players to boot the ball upfield rather than dribbling out of danger, for example - prevents them from developing the skills they'll need at the higher levels.

It's not just an American issue. Sir Trevor Brooking, the English FA's director of football development, has called for a coaching revolution.

"Let's allow them to have fun, take away the importance of winning and stop the young players being afraid of making mistakes," he says.

The FA's 2008-09 handbook states: "U-7s or U-8s are not permitted to play in leagues where results are collected or published or winner trophies are presented. This is deemed to be detrimental to the development of the player and the game and will not be sanctioned." The FA also indicated that the guidelines may be adjusted to apply to older age groups.

Jose Ramon Alexanco, the director of Barcelona's successful youth program, told me that, "We don't demand that the youth teams win. We demand that they play good soccer. We don't use the word, 'winning.'"

There are many ways to win games at the youth level that stifle development. Make an exceptionally athletic kid play goalkeeper all the time. Don't allow players to explore positions they're not yet adept at. Pack the defense. Keep the fastest tallest, kid at sweeper all the time. Man-mark the other team's best player. Introduce tactics at the developmental stage when children should be afforded freedom to learn from the game, and so on.

"A positive for us is when we see clubs looking at individuals first rather than the team results," says Lepore.

WHO'S KEEPING SCORE. Many youth leagues don't keep score at the youngest age levels. I've often heard adults say, "Oh, but the kids know the score." Of course, they do. That's missing the point. Children, it seems to me, are naturally competitive. I've seen little ones throw tantrums the first time they lost at Uno. They want to win and don't need extra encouragement from adults.

Not keeping score is an attempt to keep the adults from getting wrapped up in who wins and loses. But I don't think it works. Watch the sideline reactions to the success and failures on youth soccer fields. When 20 parents celebrate a goal, it's quite a ruckus. They are caught up in the drama of child's play and begin viewing it as if they were fans at a pro game.

How sweet it was when a bunch of 9-year-olds jumped for joy and hugged each other when they won, 3-2, on a last-minute goal. Then the next week, a series of little mistakes - ones that could have been prevented with some coaching maneuvers and perhaps a shout from the sideline - meant they gave up a tying goal in the last minute. But wasn't that experience just as valuable for the players as the happy ending?

That parents and coaches are overly enthusiastic at their children's soccer games isn't a result of bad intentions. Youth soccer games get exciting and dramatic. Parents want to see their children win and they don't want to see their children disappointed. But they need to restrain themselves. The same goes for coaches, who, of course, want to see their players enjoy a win.

Besides creating an environment that best enables children to enjoy and learn the game, when the match starts it's time for the adults to sit back and remind themselves that it's the children's game, and theirs alone.

Oh, and that goal kick? The goalie let the other girl take it. The ball went straight to a teammate. But it doesn't really matter where it went, does it?

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

December 29, 2008
U.S. Soccer: Kids In The National Teams

The first national teams most people hear about are the U-17s, who compete in biennial World Cups for boys and girls. But the U.S. Soccer Federation runs U-15 national teams for both genders.

By Mike Woitalla (from the December issue of Soccer America)

The boys program is headed by Jim Barlow, who has for the last 13 years been head coach of Princeton, where he played college ball for U.S. national team coach Bob Bradley. At the youth level, Barlow captained the Union (N.J.) Lancers when they won the McGuire Cup U-19 national championship in 1988 under Coach Manny Schellscheidt, who has been the technical director of U.S. Soccer's U-14 national identification program since 2000.

Barlow, 39, served as Ken Lolla's assistant with the U-15 program from 1999 until taking over as head coach in 2004. Each year, from August through July, the U-15s hold five events, including an international trip. While a few of the players attend all events, about 70 in all go through the program during a cycle.

Of the 40 players in the current U-17 Residency Program in Bradenton, Fla., 27 were part of the U-15 pro-gram. More than half of the players on the U.S. squad that reached the quarterfinals of the 2007 U-20 World Cup took part in the U-15 program.

"Identifying guys for the U-17 Residency Program is a big part of what we do, but we also try and consider this group more of a pool and try to deemphasize that this is the national team," says Barlow. "We don't want to put too much pressure on them. We don't want them to feel their future as a soccer player is being critiqued and analyzed every time they step on the field.

"We want them to be comfortable to experiment, to get after it, and just see if they can push themselves to another level."

Most of the players invited to the U-15s come out of the U-14 program (which is fed mainly by ODP) al-though others make it after being discovered by USSF scouts, and an increasing number are identified by playing with clubs in U.S. Soccer's Development Academy.

Besides identifying players for future national team selection, the U-15 programs aims to improve the players' game.

Says Barlow, "We don't want them, after a week-long camp, to be cocky and say, 'Hey, I've arrived.' But rather go back and be role models for the other players in their club about training habits and some of the ideas that we've talked about here."

A big part of the experience is familiarizing the players to the increased speed of the game at the higher levels, where certain maneuvers that work for them at the club level - such as getting out of traffic on their own - don't work.

"With their clubs, a lot of them can put their head down, use their body, take a few touches, maybe be a little bit faster with the ball, and be able to bail themselves out while not having a picture of what's going on around them or where everyone else is," Barlow says. "We push them to see more, to pay more attention before the ball arrives. To be cleaner with their first touch so their head can be up and make the clean connection with the next play. We want them to use their gifts of being shifty, and being skillful and getting guys off balance. But we want them to use them when they've sized up the play and that's their decision and not just because it's their escape mechanism."

Barlow says players aren't so much selected based on position:

"At our age, we're looking for 'soccer players' and as you move forward you need to try and continue to put the pieces together as results become more important."

A big challenge at this age group is that the players are still developing physically. Growth spurts can affect their play, so Barlow and his staff keep in mind that some players who might struggle with their physical changes now will become more comfortable later. They also realize that some might excel because of athletic gifts that won't give them the same advantage when others catch up physically.

Players may often be exposed to more criticism than they're used to by their club coaches, who might cuddle them for fear that they'll move to another club.

"We give them snippets of what the game should look like, or sound like, or feel like at this level," Barlow says, "and then we step back and let them take over. When that happens and the soccer comes to life, that's one way we measure how successful our week has been."

U.S. U-15 girls head coach Tad Bobak, 58, spent the first 12 years of his life in Brazil, and the next nine in Europe before moving to California in 1971. His coaching career, which started in AYSO, has included stints in the pros and collegiate ball with both genders. In 1979, he volunteered to be the L.A. Aztecs' equipment manager so he could observe legendary Dutch coach Rinus Michels train the likes of Johan Cruyff.

In 1986, Bobak coached Fram-Culver, which included future Hall of Famer Marcelo Balboa, to the McGuire Cup title. And for nearly two decades he's been co-director of the girls powerhouse So Cal Blues.

Without a U-14 program on the girls side, U-15 girls are selected mainly through ODP, with a handful of players Bobak finds through recommendations. Eleven of the 21 players on the U.S. squad that finished runner-up at the inaugural U-17 Girls World Cup in 2008 came through the U-15 program.

"It's mainly a search process," says Bobak, who took charge of the program in 2005. "There's not a huge amount of coaching or international games. ... It's filter and search."

Like the boys, the girls have five events a year.

"We're looking for four qualities," Bobak said. "Players who are mentally tough, physically tough, technically and tactically proficient. We want to have the great trademark that American players have - mental and physical toughness - but we also want to play creative soccer."

Despite the success of the women's national team, he says there's still room for improvement in the technical caliber of U.S. players.

"American culture and society, which wants instant success and instant winning, does not allow the technical and tactical to evolve enough because there's no patience," he says. "So technical and tactical suffer, but the mental and physical components thrive in the impatience of the instant reward and instant winning envi-ronment."

At the U-15 level, Bobak says the girls' mental attitude is revealing:

"Players who have a very high work ethic and a battling attitude, if they have that mental ingredient, it's a good clue that it will carry them through the years. Because that's not coachable. That's built in. It's a sign that that girl's going to last."

(This article originally appeared in the January 2009 issue of Soccer America magazine.)

December 21, 2008
Youth soccer craziness in Arizona

An extensive article in the Phoenix New Times looks at the state of youth soccer in Arizona. A forged signature scandal, accusations of abusive coaching methods, astronomical costs ...

Read the Phoenix New Times article HERE.

December 16, 2008
Tony Lepore Heads USSF Youth Scouts

By Mike Woitalla (from the December issue of Soccer America)

Tony Lepore spent a decade as an elementary and middle school guidance counselor before dedicating himself full-time to youth soccer.

"I've always come at this with a child development perspective and I think in youth coaching that's important," he says. "It's not just about knowing the game, but knowing kids. I've always come at this with a kids-first perspective."

Lepore is the Director of Scouting for the U.S. Soccer Development Academy. In that role he oversees three other full-time scouts and about 60 per-diem scouts who are searching for boys with youth national team potential among the 74 clubs that field 148 teams in the Academy's U-15/16 and U-17/18 leagues.

The scouts also serve as technical advisors to the clubs, encouraging them to follow U.S. Soccer's "Best Practices" guidelines at all age levels. The aim is to steer youth clubs away from coaching approaches that are detrimental to optimal player development.

At the younger ages, 6 to 12, Lepore says, "It's still too results-driven and not enough small-sided. There's still too much teaching positions too early. Not enough variety. No enough free play."

Lepore, 41, played college soccer at Keene State and semipro ball with the Cape Cod Crusaders and New Hampshire Phantoms. He coached high school ball, was New Hampshire's ODP Director of Coaching and the DOC of Seacoast United.

While with Seacoast, Lepore would go into the community to train rec-team coaches. A big part of that was to encourage an "age-appropriate philosophy."

"I'd talk to them about how to make it fun, and how to accept chaos and tolerate chaos, and assure them, that's how it's supposed to look," he says.

Through the U.S. Soccer Academy, launched in 2007, Lepore and his staff provide feedback to elite clubs, who are evaluated and even put on probation.

"It's objective and non-judgmental," he says. "Clubs have been really open to it. ...

"There's still some teams out there getting results but the soccer's not so good. Maybe it's too direct. Maybe it's too safe. And it's not in the best interest of development."

Overcoaching, Lepore says, is an issue that comes up frequently.

"I think that's become all too common in the American youth soccer culture, where coaches are too involved at game time," he says. "We're saying, listen, now you've got a better balance of training to games, we want you to use that time to prepare guys for games and don't be so involved in every play from the [sideline]."

Lepore stresses that many clubs are "approaching it the right way."

"A positive for us is when we see clubs looking at individuals first rather than the team results," says Lepore, citing clubs that move exceptional players into the older age bracket even though that could mean fewer wins for teams they left.

Lepore became enchanted with soccer as a young boy when his father served as a financial manager for the Hartford Bicentennials, which played in the NASL in 1974 and 1975. The team was coached by Manfred Schellscheidt, who has since become a mentor to scores of American coaches and currently heads the U.S. U-14 boys development program. Lepore reunited with Schellscheidt when Schellscheidt brought him into the USYSA Region 1 boys staff.

Lepore has also worked alongside Schellscheidt with the U-14s and continues to work under Jim Barlow with the U-15s.

The Academy scouting system enables players to be identified and move straight into national team camps, a more direct method than the ODP ladder. Lepore and his network of scouts hold weekly conference calls, submit player evaluation forms and are in constant contact with youth national team coaches.

"We're still looking for guys who are good with the ball, who show a comfort level on the ball," Lepore says. "We're looking for technical players first. And at the younger age group we're not going to scratch off the list any guys who aren't getting it done athletically right now. But also we're not ignoring the guys who have something athletically.

"There's no real formula. The evaluation sheet we have, of course, looks at guys in terms of technique and decision-making, and then athleticism, and we're also trying to get a feel for their mentality. How competitive are these guys? How focused are they? How much impact do they have on a game?"

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

December 09, 2008
Beware of Brits Bearing Baloney

Soccer America columnist Paul Gardner comments on the ever-increasing involvement of British clubs in American youth soccer: "There is something distinctly offensive about this attempt to palm off on U.S. coaching systems and 'methodology' that have failed to measure up in England."

Read the whole column HERE.

December 01, 2008
Dealing with sideline abuse

By Mike Woitalla (From Soccer America's Youth Soccer Insider)

Brian Hall became a referee at age 13. He earned his FIFA badge at age 31, officiated at a World Cup and numerous major international tournaments, and earned MLS's Referee of the Year honor four times. But most teens who take up refereeing don't last very long.

In fact, U.S. Soccer Federation referee bosses believe that the huge turnover -- about a third of the nation's referees drop out each year -- is largely a reflection of young referees quitting because of sideline abuse.

Youth leagues across the nation depend on teens to fill their referee ranks, and many of them simply aren't willing to be screamed at by parents and coaches.

Hall, who in March became the USSF Referee Department's Manager of Assessment and Training, says referees at all levels are being encouraged to use the "Ask-Tell-Remove" approach that has been implemented in MLS to handle coaches' misbehavior.

"You ask the coach to please refrain from that behavior," says Hall. "The next step is the 'tell' procedure, which is basically to tell them their behavior is no longer going to be tolerated.

"You say, 'Coach, I'm telling you that your behavior is no longer acceptable and if you don't change your behavior, I'm going to be forced to take further action.'"

The final step is an ejection.

But in the second step, Hall says, "You always tell them, 'But that decision is yours.'"

"Now you're putting the responsibility on the coach to manage his behavior. You want to find a way to transfer the burden off your shoulders and put it on the coach's."

Dealing with abuse from parents is tougher, Hall says.

"Technically, unless certain leagues allow it, you can't dismiss parents," he says.

Hall recommends that the referee approach the coach to deal with the parents, "because the coach is a person you can control."

Hall says, "We can go to the coach and say, 'Listen, you have responsibility for the conduct of your parents and if it gets to the point where I feel they're impacting my ability to do a job, or impacting the way the players are able to perform on the field, and if it continues and no one deals with it, we have to suspend or terminate the game.'"

Hall believes leagues that restrict the parents to the opposite sideline from the coaches help the referee control the crowd.

"It makes it easy for referees to distinguish between the parents and the coaches when they want to take action," Hall says. "You know specifically who you're dealing with -- who you can do something official with."

When a coach has been instructed by the referee to quiet his team's parents, he can send over an assistant to deliver the message. Or the coach can be forced to deal with the parents while the game is stopped.

Hall cites an example:

"The referee tells the coach, 'I'll give you a couple minutes to go over and tell the parents to stop their screaming.'"

Knowing that if he doesn't deal with his team's parents, the game can be terminated and his team could be punished with a loss, the coach is forced to take action.

"When the game is stopped as the coach walks all the way across the field," Hall says, "the focus is now off the referee and on the coach and the parents."

(Mike Woitalla is the executive editor of Soccer America.)