February 20, 2009
Field Play Makes Better Keepers

Is the USA's ability to produce great goalkeepers threatened by early specialization?

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

In high school, goalkeepers Brad Friedel and Tim Howard starred at soccer and basketball. Tony Meola kept playing baseball even at the University at Virginia while he was starring in goal and launching a national team career that would include to two World Cup appearances.

Gold-medalist goalkeeper Hope Solo played basketball and volleyball, in addition to soccer, at which she played forward until converting to full-time goalkeeper in college.

In fact, Solo scored 109 goals in high school, leading to her Parade All-American selection twice as a field player. She's similar to Meola and Howard in that way. They too played forward for their high school teams and were prolific scorers.

Brad Guzan, the backup keeper to Howard with the U.S. national team, was a consistent starter in MLS at a younger age than any previous keeper before he moved to the English Premier League. Guzan played in the field for his youth club, the Chicago Magic, and Providence Catholic High School, where he earned all-state honors as a midfielder.

It would seem, then, that playing other sports and other positions in soccer might be beneficial to a goalkeeper's development. But whether that's the path the future American keepers take may be threatened by the ultra-competitive environment of today's youth game.

"A lot of coaches worry that a player is going to fall behind if he doesn't play goalkeeper all the time," says U.S. Soccer goalkeeper coach Tim Mulqueen "I don't agree with that."

Mulqueen, who has coached U.S. keepers at the U-17 and U-20 World Cups and the Olympics, says playing other sports and playing other positions on the soccer field is an important part of a player's development.

"There needs to be a healthy balance," he says. "If the kids play soccer the whole time, they can obviously suffer from burnout. For me, the correlation between playing soccer and basketball, baseball or lacrosse - to me that makes a whole lot of sense. Besides there being skills that translate over to soccer for goalkeeping, it keeps them fresh mentally. It keeps their body fresh. It's a win-win for me."

Paul Grafer is the current goalkeeper coach for the U-17 boys national team. Before he took that position he spent three years studying youth sports trends in America at Adelphi University.

"The movement to have the youth soccer player specialize at an even earlier age ... I'd say that's consistent among all sports," says Grafer. "Every sport is trying to garner as many kids as possible, so specialization is an issue for every sport."

This early specializing has become one of American youth sports' most controversial issues. For one, studies have shown that it could be the reason for an increase in "overuse injuries" among children.

"Many theories abound but most experts point to one main causative factor: year-round training in a single sport," says Dr. Dev K. Mishra, an orthopedic surgeon and member of the team physician pool with the U.S. Soccer Federation. "What we are talking about here is structured, organized training. I cannot recall seeing these injuries in kids playing pickup soccer, hanging out at the park or even playing several 'seasonal' sports."

Some youth clubs expect even preteens to dedicate themselves year-round to a single sport. One motivation for this could be that paid coaches need year-round income, although they'll say it's because children must specialize to excel. However, other coaches believe that a varied experience turns them into better athletes, which will help them when they do eventually specialize.

Tony DiCicco, a goalkeeper coach who was head coach of the U.S. women's 1996 Olympic and 1999 World Cup triumphs, is head coach of Women's Professional Soccer's Boston Breakers.

"I think there may very well be less exploring of other sports by children today," says DiCicco. "I'm not saying that's right or wrong, but personally I think that playing a variety of sports, especially for preteens and even in the early teens, is very good for you. And it's especially good for goalkeepers to play sports like basketball and baseball because of hand-eye coordination."

DiCicco said when he coached U-10s, he would rotate keepers, giving almost all of them stints in goal. Even at the U-13 level, he says half his players took turns in goal.

Solo says the No. 1 question she gets from parents is about choosing a single sport for their children at an early age.

"They'll say, 'I want my daughter to focus on one sport,'" Solo says. "I guess it's because in this day and age, parents want their kids to get further along as fast as possible, so they can get a scholarship. But I don't know if that's good. If I had played the same sport the entire year, I know I would have gotten burned out."

As a youth player, Solo rarely played goalkeeper. She says that if she had started playing only keeper at a young age, it would have turned her off soccer. She says that playing in the field helped her agility, her reading of the game and her foot skills, which Olympic team goalkeeper coach Phil Wheddon says are extraordinary.

"It wasn't until I was an adult that I could really appreciate the qualities of being goalkeeper," Solo says.

DiCicco, Wheddon, Mulqueen and Grafer all agree that playing in the field is crucial for a goalkeeper's development. And that keepers who specialize too early, even if they've mastered most aspects of the position, may find themselves losing out to keepers who had more experience in the field when they reach higher levels.

"Foot skills still seem to be lacking overall in the goalkeeping department," Wheddon says. "I think at the youth level, we often pigeon-hole players very, very early. OK, you're a goalkeeper, you're 7 years old. It's unfortunate that we do label kids so early. And we don't develop their foot skills enough from an early age onward."

While the success of Kasey Keller, Marcus Hahnemann, Howard and Friedel in the English Premier League indicates the USA produces excellent goalkeepers, Grafer says there are general deficiencies that he sees in American keepers when he scouts for the U-17 national team program.

"We do have good goalkeepers," Grafer says. "We tend to make a lot of great saves, deal great with crosses and are courageous. But when it comes to foot skills, distribution, communication and organization of the team - the tactical areas and positioning - I'm not sure we match up as well as we could with keepers from other parts of the world.

"Understanding where the danger spots are. Cutting out through balls and that organizational part that is almost like preventive goalkeeping - where you don't even have to make that emergency save - those are skills that players can develop by playing in the field."

Which is why the national team keeper coaches advocate that youth coaches shouldn't encourage youngsters to specialize too early.

"I think our keepers tend to specialize fairly early," says Grafer. "Some people say it shouldn't be until age 14. I don't know if there's any real rule, but we'd like the young goalkeepers to also be playing in the field."

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

February 02, 2009
Getting kids to play on their own

By Mike Woitalla (from Soccer America's Youth Soccer Insider, Jan. 15, 2008)

No one denies that children who want to excel at soccer should play the game in addition to their team's practices and games, but today's children have less unscheduled time than previous generations and more diversions. Getting them to choose soccer over other options -- whether it be Guitar Hero or Webkinz - can require prodding from the parents.

Here are some methods that parents and coaches can use to encourage children to play on their own, and games they'll enjoy while improving their skills:

Take a ball everywhere when you're with your child. It doesn't have to be a soccer ball, in fact, those red, bouncy ones used for schoolyard dodge ball are perfect. At the playground, kick around with your child whenever she feels like it. She may want to kick for a few minutes, then hit the swings. Over time, you're likely to find her enjoying the ball more and more. And chances are other kids will migrate to the ball, and you'll have started a little soccer game.

BOUNCEY PASS BACK. Pass the ball back and forth with your child while keeping it bouncing. Count how many passes you can hit before it stops bouncing or you lose control, turning it into a contest.

KICK AND CATCH. Play kick and catch with your child. Kick it so he can catch it. Then he drops and kicks it back.

SOCCER TENNIS. Take your child to a tennis court with a bouncy ball. Try and kick it back and forth over the net. You can bring tennis rackets, too, and mix things up. A little tennis, a little soccer tennis.

'INDOOR SOCCER.' There are many balls on the market that are soft enough so they won't do too much damage to the house. If you have a den or a hallway, let your children kick around in the house.

BALL NET. Get your child a ball net. It's virtually guaranteed that a child holding a ball in a net on a string will kick it about, which means she's developing a feel for striking the ball.

To tap the ball in the air over and over means you're learning to hit the sweet spot. Juggling with feet and thighs trains players to be comfortable with the ball and develops striking and trapping skills. Besides helping with foot-eye coordination, juggling is a great way to work on balance. It also develops the weak foot.

Coaches and parents can motivate players to juggle on their own by offering small rewards when they reach certain levels, for example, soccer-ball stickers for 5; soccer-ball key chain for 10, etc.

It's difficult at first, so have them let the ball bounce in between. Ask them to drop it on their thigh or foot once, then catch it. Then go for two, and so on. The more they advance, the more fun it gets, and the more they juggle.

Even if you don't have a soccer background, learning how to juggle will help motivate your child when you do it together and compare each other's progress. Try team juggling - keeping the ball off the ground as long as possible, and count how many times you and your child can do it. She'll soon be wanting to aim for more and more.

MINI-GOALS. Nothing's as exciting as shooting a ball into the net, so set up some small goals in the backyard.

Find a field on a Sunday morning, set up a couple of goals, and gather children of all ages. You're setting up the pickup game that kids of yesteryear created on their own. Don't coach! If adults play along, do so as teammates, not as instructors.

CREATE SOCCER CULTURE. Getting young children to watch a 90-minute game on TV may be too ambitious, but with digital recording it's easy to show them some spectacular plays and goals. Rent age-appropriate soccer-themed movies - there's a bunch out there.

Research star players, like Mia Hamm and Landon Donovan, show your child their photos and highlight clips, and tell them stories about the stars' childhood soccer. When Ronaldinho was a boy, he played soccer with his dog, Bombom!

You don't want to force children to practice their soccer, but you can create an environment that entices them to play, especially when you're willing to play along. If they lose interest after a few minutes, no big deal. Just keep the opportunities coming, and chances are the amount of time a child wants to play will keep increasing.

(This was excerpted from an article that first appeared in PLAYSOCCER, the Magazine of the American Youth Soccer Organization, courtesy of AYSO.

February 01, 2009
Wheddon's Camp 'Holiday' Leads To Gold Medals

Phil Wheddon came to the USA from England in 1990 the way many young British players do: To see the nation while working at youth soccer camps.

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

"That six-month holiday turned into nearly 20 years," says the 38-year-old who has served the USA as goalkeeper coach at both men's and women's World Cups. Last August, for the second time, he celebrated an Olympic gold medal with the U.S. women.

"He's an incredible," says goalkeeper Hope Solo, the hero of the U.S. women's 1-0 triumph over Brazil in the 2008 gold-medal game. "Of course, he's a great trainer. He's so accurate with the ball. He's got a great right foot, great left foot. There's no question about how good a training we get from him.

"But there's more to it. Most importantly, what he's really helped me with is understanding the position, reading the game and being in the right mental state. For me, that's where he really helps us. He really helped me grow into myself and have confidence in myself."

Wheddon grew up Basingstoke, 50 miles southwest of London, dreaming of being a professional soccer player. During a P.E. class, when he was 10, Wheddon was playing goalkeeper and got his hand on a well-hit shot. He managed to tip it onto the crossbar, from where it bounced back to the striker for an easy tap-in.

"The ball ended up in the back of the net," Wheddon remembers, "but the P.E. teacher said there's some potential there. He asked me if I wanted to be goalkeeper on the school team. For a 10-year-old, that's a pretty big deal."

In his late teens, Wheddon went on several trials with pro clubs, and he spent time with Swindon Town. Wheddon says goalkeeper coaching has come a long way since he was a young hopeful in England – "when they had an ex-pro strike balls at you."

"Smalls things make a big difference," he says. "We've now broken things down to minute details – like the angle at which toes are pointed – and identified the finer points of the game."

While trying to break into the pros, Wheddon also earned a Business Finance degree and a minor in Coaching at Crewe and Alsager College. Upon graduation, he ventured to the USA.

Working camps led to an opportunity to coach high school soccer in Connecticut. After that doors kept opening. He returned to college in the USA and played a year at Southern Connecticut under then Coach Ray Reid. Afteward, he became men's and women's keeper coach at East Stroudsburg University and received a degree in Physical Education and Sports Management.

He returned to Southern Connecticut, as keeper coach for both teams, and the men's squad, under Coach Tom Lang, won back-to-back Division II national titles.

While getting his U.S. Soccer A license, staff coach Peter Mellor, a veteran keeper of English pro soccer, recruited him as an instructor. Wheddon also had stints as U.S. women's keeper coach that turned into a full-time position under Coach April Heinrichs, whom he assisted at the 2003 Women's World Cup and during the team's 2004 gold-medal run. At the 2006 men's World Cup, he served under Coach Bruce Arena.

Wheddon was the only coach retained from the 2007 Women's World Cup staff by Pia Sundhage when she took over from Greg Ryan. After last summer's Olympic triumph, Wheddon became head coach of Syracuse's women's team, but he continues to coach the U.S. women.

"For me, he has the perfect personality," says Solo. "His training's tough but he doesn't have that tough personality. He creates a trusting environment. He's very open and honest. So you don't take it personal when he does come on hard. It's a very trusting environment.

"Everyone knows I've made my share of mistakes, but he always supports me and helps me cope with my setbacks. That's really, really important for a goalkeeper."

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