September 20, 2009
For Kids Only ...

By Mike Woitalla (from Soccer America Magazine's Youth Insider)

This column is for the kids. Adults can stop reading now

Dear Soccer-Playing Children of America,

The fall season is underway and I'm hoping you're having a great time. I'm hoping that you're playing soccer more than you have to stand in line and do drills.

I hope you're falling in love with the soccer ball and keep it with you as much as you can. Juggling it. Kicking it against a wall. Dribbling it around in your backyard.

And I especially hope that your parents aren't screaming at you during your soccer games.

I worry that you probably do get yelled at, because that's what I see at almost all the youth soccer games I go to. Hopefully you just ignore it. But I don't blame you if it bothers you.

No one enjoys getting screamed at. Sure, if you start crossing the street on a red light or throw a toy at your little sister or brother, your parents are justified in raising their voices. But they shouldn't scream at you while you're playing a game.

If they do, it doesn't mean they're bad people. But, unfortunately, sports does something to adults that makes them behave in ways they usually wouldn't.

You may have noticed this if you watch sports on TV. A coach, for example, dresses up in a fancy suit and throws tantrums like a 3-year-old.

Get adults around sports and all of a sudden they forget the same manners they try to teach you. In a way, sports are like driving. A grown-up gets behind the wheel and all of a sudden forgets you're not supposed to pick your nose in public.

And when grown-ups go watch their children play soccer, they, for some reason, think it's OK to scream like maniacs. Perhaps they don't realize what they're doing. Like the nose-pickers on the freeway who think they've suddenly gone invisible.

I hope you're able to block out all the sideline noise. But maybe you do hear their shouts. Telling you when to shoot the ball, when to pass it. Ignore all that!

You need to dribble the ball. Try to dribble past players. If you're dribbling too much, your teammates will let you know. And they'll help you make the decision of when to pass and when to dribble.

You decide when to shoot. When you're dribbling toward the goal and the goalkeeper is 20 yards away, and the adults are screaming at you to shoot, don't pay attention. Because if you get closer to the goal, it will be harder for the goalkeeper to stop your shot.

One of the really cool things about my job is that I get to interview the best coaches in America. And you know what the national team coaches tell me? They say young players are far more likely to become great players if they're allowed to make their own decisions when they play soccer.

They say that coaches should coach at practice, and when it's game time, it's time for the children to figure things out on their own. It's like at school. The teachers help you learn. Your parents help you with homework. But when you get a test, you're on your own.

That's just an analogy. I'm not saying soccer is school! Soccer is your playtime.

I hope you have lots of playtime, on the soccer field and elsewhere. But I bet that you don't have as much time playing without adults around as we did when we were children.

When we were kids we had summer days when we would leave the house in the morning, be only with other children all day, then see our parents when we got back in the late afternoon.

Things have changed. The reasons adults are much more involved in your activities than they were in your parents' when they were children are complicated, and a result of your parents' good intentions.

But sometimes we adults forget how important it is for you to play without us interfering. We love watching you play, especially on the soccer field, because it is such a wonderful sport. But we need to be reminded that it's your playtime.

You should decide. Ignore the shouts if you can. But don't be afraid to say, "I'm trying my best. Please, don't scream at me."

((Mike Woitalla, who coaches youth soccer in Northern California, is the executive editor of Soccer America. His youth articles are archived at YouthSoccerFun.com.)

September 03, 2009
The Real Problem with Women's Pro Soccer

The first season of the Women's Professional Soccer league produced smaller crowds and bigger financial losses than anticipated. Of course, the nation's economic downturn has been blamed, and the analyses of the league's struggles have focused on off-the-field issues.

By Mike Woitalla (from Soccer America Magazine's Youth Insider)

Yes, media coverage is difficult to get as newsroom staffs keep shrinking. Sponsorships are a hard sell in this economic climate. And WPS's attempts to tap into the lucrative youth soccer market is tricky business. By launching camps, it competes with and antagonizes the youth clubs and organizations whose players it's trying to get into the stadiums.

But what really matters is whether the soccer on the field is entertaining enough to draw crowds and keep them coming back.

The primary customers for WPS are girl soccer players - and the parents and coaches who deem it worthwhile to take their daughters out to watch potential role models.

The notion is that girls will be inspired by watching stars of their own gender. They'll be encouraged to watch more soccer - a key to player development - because they'll enjoy watching WPS games.

But what do young, aspiring soccer players see when they attend WPS games?

What they rarely see is goals. The league averaged 2.14 goals per game. That's even lower than Major League Soccer's current 2.54 production.

There are problems here. For one, if a coach or a parent is taking girls to WPS games to learn by observing, what are they learning? They're certainly not seeing enough scoring to figure out how that's done.

Come watch WPS to see good defending! How enticing is that, especially as there is no shortage of stifling anti-soccer on the market already?

Are the girls attending WPS games being entertained when a goal occurs only once every 42 minutes? That is simply an unacceptable rate. More than a third of WPS's 70 regular-season games featured just one goal or were scoreless ties.

Defense-minded, low-scoring soccer plagues men's soccer. Wins by 1-0 might be celebrated by fans with a deep allegiance to the winning club. But such allegiance doesn't exist in a new, American league. And the youngsters of today's America have so many entertainment options they're unlikely to find thrills from soccer games played out like chess matches.

That's not to mention the adults who take them to the games. Often they are already spending much of their time on soccer, bringing their children to games and practices a few days a week. If they spend even more time and money on soccer by attending a pro game, they'd better be rewarded with some major entertainment.

Yes, of course, low-scoring soccer games can be entertaining. But rarely. Who would opt for a 1-0 match over a 3-2 game? The coach might. But not the fan.

WPS teams had a chance to prove themselves above an attitude to the game based on preventing rather than producing goals. WPS could have distinguished itself making soccer's most thrilling moments - the goals! - more frequent and offering an alternative to the depressingly downward scoring trend we have seen in the men's game. Instead, WPS delivered even less than the men.

WPS collected the world's best female players ever to play in one league - and they produced one of the lowest scoring leagues the world has ever seen. Imagine how that reflects on the sport and women's soccer in general. Here's the world's best - and they rarely put the ball in the net.

WPS owners, I imagine, are spending the offseason reevaluating their marketing strategy. But they should also be questioning their coaches on how and why they took a low-scoring sport to new depths.

The coaches' responses are predictable. They will defend their defensive approach. They'll say their jobs are on the line if they don't get results. And that in soccer it's easier to get results by playing cautiously. That's when their bosses should make it clear that there will no jobs if there aren't more goals.

But because coaches aren't easily enticed to make the game more fun and exciting, WPS should go a step further and introduce a point system that rewards goalscoring.

The friendly autograph sessions and the lure of female role models isn't enough to make WPS a success.

September 01, 2009
The Internet Impact

The game will always be played on the field, but everything that leads up to it has become easier thanks to high technology.

By Mike Woitalla (from the September 2009 issue of Soccer America)

When a child asks you what kind of cell phone you had when you were a kid, or what you mean by "sounding like a broken record" - it's a nice reminder of the technological changes that have occurred within the last generation.

Then, of course, there's the almighty Internet. We managed without it, but do you recall how?

For sure, the world of youth soccer teams functioned quite differently without e-mail and those handy team-management Web sites. Any communication that wasn't taken care of on the field required a long series of phone calls - opposed to that one convenient e-mail we can now send out to the entire team. "I remember I always had two file folders," says longtime San Francisco coach Toby Rappolt of Viking SC. "One was 'called.' One was 'left messages.'"

Tim Schulz, the president of giant youth club Rush Soccer, recalls when fellow coach Dave Chesler tried to explain e-mail, sometime around the mid-1990s.

"Oh my gosh, I'll never forget the conversation," Schulz says. "He showed me the computer, which was somewhat foreign to me anyway. He showed me how you could send mail and receive it through the computer. I just laughed and said I'll never do that. It's not going to happen."

Chesler, now the U.S. U-18 girls national team coach, told Schulz back then: "This is going to be the future of the coach. If you can't do e-mails, you're probably not going to make it."

So major is the role that the Internet plays in youth soccer that Rush SC, which has clubs in more than 20 states, is investing around $200,000 to upgrade its Web site.

Charlie Slagle, chief executive of North Carolina's CASL, points out that the club Web site is valuable on the marketing front. CASL has the logos of 20 club sponsors on its landing page.

"We had 1,100 teams in our tournament last year, so our number of hits is crazy," Slagle says, "because all those people are checking what their schedule is, what the results are. Let alone our own teams, who check their schedule, their scores, and how to get to the field."

The Rush requires its coaches to frequently e-mail reports to their players' parents and copy their team's supervisor on them.

"We want them to, on a regular basis, let the team and parents know which direction they're going," Schulz says. "You better tell the parents what's going on. What are the fees. What are the fees going to. How are they playing. Why they lost. Why you're disciplining a child. Why you're conducting another training session because we missed two games in a row, and on and on.

"You need to keep the parent in the loop. It's vital. If you don't, you're going to lose your customer. Your competitor will get them."

The weekly e-mail to parents has become a common part of coaching youth ball.

"That's my opportunity to inform parents what we're doing and why we're doing it," says Rappolt.

Says Jeff Baicher, the Director of Coaching for Northern California's De Anza Force, "If you have a problem communicating with parents, you're not going to be coaching at my club for long."

The e-mailed team report gives coaches a chance to explain their coaching methods and how the players are progressing, helping the parents comprehend that the final score isn't the only way to judge a game.

Team management Web sites enable parents to report the availability of their children for games and team events. Club Web sites provide myriad information. Besides game schedules, there are field maps, club news, player bios aimed at college coaches, and boasts about which colleges club alumni are attending. Rush clubs are required to update their Web sites at least every three days.

Before the Internet, says Schulz, "The communication was slow. You didn't change training. You just relied on those times and dates. Lots of miscommunication went on."

Of course, the Internet makes team registration much smoother. "We have 9,000 players who register online," Slagle says. "We used to do that by hand."

Mary Kaliff, the general manager of the San Diego area's Nomads SC, joined the club in 2001, bringing with her loads of experience from working at an Internet development company.

After handling league registration that required typing and retyping, she orchestrated a move to online registration. She was also involved in the creation of U.S. Club Soccer, which flourished as an alternative to U.S. Youth Soccer thanks to its streamlined online registration process and inter-state player database.

"The Internet enables one person to do the job of 10," she says. "It saves a lot of money that we can instead put into the players."

Of course, the reliance on the Internet can present a barrier for those without easy access to the Web.

RJ Castro is the commissioner of East Valley PAL, most of whose players come from San Jose's lower-income Latino community.

"We probably only have 20 percent registration online and 80 percent are done the old-fashioned way - paper forms brought into the office," he says.

Many of the Nomads' players also come from lower-income Latino families.

"They can get Internet access at libraries and schools," says Kaliff. "And we created a buddy system, where those with Internet access print out the information and relay it to those who don't have it."

There's also Twitter, which enables Nomads director of coaching Derek Armstrong to text information into his cell phone while on road trips that appears on the club's Web site. Slagle uses a widget to text messages that arrive in the cell phones of 1,500 families with announcements such as field closures.

The Internet provides a plethora of educational material for soccer coaches and players. Google "soccer coaching" and you'll get 235,000 results. It recalls personal computer pioneer Mitch Kapor's statement that, "Getting information off the Internet is like taking a drink from a fire hydrant."

The novice youth coach just might believe that a Web site boasting 350 drills can help him bring joy to children on the soccer field. There is, no kidding, a Web site that offers 29 drills for players ages 3 through 5.

The major organizations such as the USSF, U.S. Youth Soccer, AYSO and the NSCAA include coaching education sections on their sites.

"I haven't found one [coaching Web site] as complete as I think should be available out there," says Schulz. "We take bits and pieces from different Web sites. Our new Web site will have a large coaching education tool. It will be very interactive. ... By using video, you can really cut back the ambiguity of what is trying to be said. And you need to make it clear for what age and skill level the drills should be used."

Slagle says with the Internet's rise do come negatives, such as the forum Web sites in which people can anonymously post misinformation and vitriolic criticism. The positives, however, outweigh the negatives, he says, citing that the Internet creates a soccer culture among kids by putting role models at their fingertips, thanks to sites such as YouTube.com.

"I think it helps kids a lot," he says. "Messi or Ronaldo scores a magnificent goal, they watch it on the Internet. It sparks conversation and they try to emulate great players."

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