April 30, 2012
Keys to keeper confidence

By Tim Mulqueen with Mike Woitalla (excerpted from "The Complete Soccer Goalkeeper")

It's perfectly normal to feel nervous before a game, but keepers need to clear their head of negative thoughts. How they go about doing this depends on the individual.

A good goalkeeper coach learns to read his players well enough to know whether to step in -- and to know what to say. If a keeper needs a little confidence boost, the coach might provide a positive memory: “This field reminds me of where we beat Lions SC and you saved the last-minute penalty kick. Remember that?”

If the keeper needs more of a pep talk, the coach might be more direct: “You had great practices this week. You made incredible saves and snatched crosses better than ever. You’re as prepared as you can be. Now go out there and have some fun!”

If the keeper needs to rein in his racing mind and relax in the minutes before the game, the coach might initiate some light-hearted conversation: “Hey, Sam, look at the face paint on those fans!”

A keeper who thrives on intensity may be best left alone.

A keeper who struggles with self-doubt can mentally walk through scenarios such as the following: Take a few seconds to scan the field. Imagine a counterattack that results in a breakaway, and you grab the ball from the forward’s feet with a perfectly timed dive. Imagine great saves and safely gathered crosses. To clear your head, picture the soccer ball. Try thinking of nothing but that ball. Tell yourself “That ball will be mine!”

(Excerpted from “The Complete Soccer Goalkeeper” by Tim Mulqueen with Mike Woitalla courtesy of Human Kinetics. U.S. Soccer Federation coach and instructor Tim Mulqueen has been goalkeeper coach for U.S. national teams at the U-17 World Cup, U-20 World Cup and at the 2008 Olympic Games. He's been a goalkeeper coach in MLS, for the MetroStars, and the Kansas City Wizards when they lifted the 2000 league title.)

April 27, 2012
Proud parents of great players offer insight

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

"The worst thing for a kid is to be on the field and hear his father screaming from the sidelines, and the kid has to look over and see that."

That’s from Pablo Forlan, the father of 2010 World Cup Golden Ball (MVP) winner Diego Forlan, one of 55 soccer superstars featured in Bruno Pisano’s book, “My Son The Soccer Player: The Secrets of the World’s Greatest Players as Told by Their Parents.”

Pisano tracked down the parents of great players from around the world for insight on the early years of Messi, Donovan, Drogba and many more. If the parents weren’t available, he interviewed the players. (And despite the “sons” title, included are Mia Hamm, Brandi Chastain and Julie Foudy.)

“I never felt any pressure from my father -- only his company,” says Enzo Francescoli, the predecessor as Uruguay’s greatest player to Forlan, whose father added, “With Diego, I’d motivate him, but I very much believed in not talking unless he talked to me. If he wanted to know about his mistakes I’d tell him, and I’d also tell him about his best moves.”

Mia Hamm’s father, Bill Hamm, speaks of the time she, between 10 and 11, quit the game for a while:

“She got tired of playing soccer for some reason. Therefore she took a break for one of the seasons. She sat back for about six months. I used to continue coaching the team without her. In the next season, she returned with new enthusiasm. She had recharged her batteries and wanted to play soccer again.”

Landon Donovan’s mom Donna Kenney-Cash reveals there were times when he thought of quitting: “Sometimes, he used to think that it is not the game it used to be, that what started out as fun has become something stressful.”  It happened when he was away from home at a young age. “But he never stayed negative for long. … Those were just small moments, and he always went back to his love of soccer and went on to fulfill his dreams.”

Albert Drogba
urged his son, Didier, to focus less on soccer and strive to become a doctor or lawyer. Diego Maradona Sr. threatened to take his son’s ball away if he didn’t study more. Young Diego responded by spending more time with his teachers.

“But instead of learning, he began to play soccer with his teachers,” recalls Diego Sr. “The issue is that one of his teachers was his accomplice – they’d play soccer together and the teacher would forge good report cards for him.”

Other players besides Lionel Messi coped with being outsized. Francisco Richo, the father of high-scoring Swedish striker Henrik Larsson, lamented that his boy suffered from a poor physique as he “never drank milk or ate fish.”

“When [Henrik] was 12 or 13, because he was very small and skinny, the other players made fun of him,” Richo says. “His coach saw his quality and told him not to worry because he had the skills to make it, even though at the time he had to play with younger children because of his size.”

Larsson grew to 5-foot-10, but Andres Iniesta, scorer of the 2010 World Cup-winning goal for Spain, peaked at 5-7.

Jose Antonio Iniesta recalls his son’s early challenges: “At that time I was thinking that he will grow with time -- his body will grow. But at that age, teams look for players who are bigger. Most of them focused on height. Fortunately Andres was gifted both with technical ability and a great intellect. However, as I said, coaches at the time were skeptical.”

The book also includes detailed biographical features. Its interviews all end with queries for parental advice.

Says Johan Cruyff, “I think my advice for a father or a mother is not to rush their child. … If your kid knows that you are standing behind him through every moment, through thick and thin, then he will surely give his best.”

Nene Cubillas: “Give him the ball and let him enjoy it. Of course you can go to games and applaud him and encourage him, but try never to upset him or push him. Give him all the freedom in the world so that kids can be themselves and do the best they can.”

The Salvadoran playmaker, Mauricio Cienfuegos, settled in the USA after ending his career with the Los Angeles Galaxy as one of the top players in MLS history.

“For me, my son loves American football, so we support him in that because he enjoys it,” says Cienfuegos. “If your son likes soccer, art, another sport – support him in what he does. The most important thing is for your children to be happy and to do what they love.”

(For more on “My Son The Soccer Player: The Secrets of the World’s Greatest Players as Told by Their Parents” by Bruno Pisano, go to mysonthesoccerplayer.com/. The author donates $1 for every book sold to Children’s Hospital Los Angeles.)

April 24, 2012
Playing in 'small spaces' and speaking of Barcelona

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

"I think we really need to get better in small spaces," said Claudio Reyna, U.S. Soccer’s Youth Technical Director, in the wake of the U.S. men's failure to qualify for the Olympics.

In an interview with Jimmy Conrad on "The Mixer," Reyna spoke of American youth teams relying on “running and overpowering teams and being physical” when where “we have to really improve as a soccer-playing nation is playing in the small, tight spaces throughout the field.”

To Arch Bell of ESPN.com, Reyna said, "I think the winning aspect is what has caused some really ugly youth soccer. Now we're trying to play more out of the back and through the midfield.”

Reyna added, "I think kids should be doing pickup or futsal all the time. I think it's very important for technique. In Argentina, futsal is what kids play growing up. They get very comfortable in small spaces with the ball. It's usually less pressure, so they can try things."

Seems to me that too much American youth soccer is played on huge fields, which rewards athleticism more than skill.

Teale Matteson, a coaching colleague of mine in Northern California – where 12-year-olds routinely play on 120-yard long fields – recently visited Barcelona. Matteson noted that:

“The youth programs play all games 7v7 until age 12, age 14 for the girls. The field is 44 yards wide (the width of a penalty box), 54 yards long with 10-yard box, a 12-yard offside line in lieu of the halfway line and one referee.”

SPEAKING OF BARCA. Spanish journalist Marti Perarnau, author of “Senda de Campeones” (Path of Champions), also offers insight into Barca’s youth program, La Masia. Perarnau was interviewed at “Blueprint for Football.”

Asked what qualities Barcelona looks for in young recruits, Perarnau said: “Technique, tactical intelligence and mental speed. These three traits are the ones that matter. Players with very good technique, who are able to understand the game (not just play, but also understand it) and speed of mind.”

On whether physical strength and height are given much importance: “None. Barca does not care about the size of the player. The three parameters I mentioned are the only ones that matter. Not even if you stand out during a tournament. Indeed, Barcelona often signs kids that have gone unnoticed in a tournament, but have those three potential features.”

On youth programs aiming to emulate Barcelona, Perarnau said: “The basic aspects of Barca’s system was to have an idea of how to play the game, create a training model, find the type of player who adapts to it and spend many years and energies in this operation. But each club should put in the pot their own ingredients, no doubt.”

Barcelona’s youth coaches train players arriving with extraordinary skill spotted by the club’s scores of scouts who scour the region, nation and world (e.g., Argentine Lionel Messi arrived at age 13) for talent.

I imagine most American youth coaches could look quite brilliant if they had the luxury of training players of the quality that Barcelona recruits into its ranks. And I bet Barca coaches might not look so genius if they had to the cope with the challenges American youth coaches face. But what really matters about the Barcelona model is how it plays the game -- attack-minded, entertaining and high-scoring -- and that emphasizing skills and smarts is at the root of that style. That's what all youth coaches should strive for, whether they’re coaching at La Masia or in the USA.

MORE FROM AROUND THE NET. Marca reported Barcelona started 10 players who came out of its youth program in a 4-0 La Liga win over Getafe on April 10. One week earlier, in Barca’s 3-1 Champions League win over AC Milan, Coach Pep Guardiola started nine. (Argentine Javier Mascherano and Brazilian Dani Alves were the two “imports.”). Seven starters in Wednesday Champions League semifinal vs. Chelsea joined Barca as youths. ...

Gabriele Marcotti of the Wall Street Journal reports on what age Barca stars joined La Masia in "Soccer's Nature vs. Nurture Debate: What Distinguishes Barcelona's La Masia From Other Youth Academies?" HERE. ...

Diane Scavuzzo of SoccerNation.com interviewed Christian Lavers, the president of the Elite Clubs National League (ECNL). Founded in 2009 by U.S. Club Soccer, the ECNL serves as the girls version of the U.S. Soccer Development Academy. Read the Q&A HERE. ...

Edwin Torres
lists “Ten Ways You Know You Are a Bad Soccer Parent” HERE ...

A $440,000 youth soccer embezzlement case HERE.

WORTH A VIEW: Nkosi Burgess of the Dix Hill Heat scored a stunning goal in U-15 action on Long Island. Burgess set himself up for an overhead volley with a back heel in game against Hauppauge Brazil. Check out the video HERE.

April 20, 2012
Mia Hamm's advice for girls, parents and coaches

American sports icon Mia Hamm debuted for the U.S. national team at age 15 in 1987. She helped the USA to two World Cup and two Olympic titles. The 158 national team goals she scored before retiring in 2004 remain a world record. We asked Hamm to reflect on her early years and offer advice for coaches, parents and young players.

Interview by Mike Woitalla (from Soccer America's Youth Soccer Insider)

SOCCER AMERICA: How involved are you still in soccer?

It’s a huge part of my life. I’m still involved with U.S. Soccer on a couple of committees to help continue the growth of the game and make sure we’re going in the right direction, in general, as a Federation.

Kristine Lilly, Tisha Venturini-Hoch and myself started a soccer academy called Team First to basically help share with young girls our experiences and what we felt helped make us successful.

I still watch tons of soccer. Both the men’s and women’s national teams, MLS, EPL …

SA: What part of the coaching you got as a youngster helped you succeed?

Everyone talks about it being fun. And it definitely was. That needs to be the focus. Development over winning was something I felt was there. I think as kids, and especially the players who go on to play at the highest level, they’re naturally competitive. That’s going to be a part of what they do.

At a certain age, that reinforcement is important, but at a young age it’s about development and making sure that the kids really enjoy the environment they’re in so they want to come back and continue to learn and listen.

SA: How different do you think youth soccer is now compared to your early days?

The first coaches I had were just dads. And [laughs] probably wearing too small team uniform shirts and a really bad hat or visor on the sideline. And occasionally saying things they got from their days of playing football and trying to apply it to soccer, like “get to the end zone.”

It’s changed a lot. Some good, some bad. Coaching and the players are so much better at a younger age.

I didn’t specialize until I made the national team. I still played basketball and a bunch of different sports, really kind of followed what my friends were playing in the season that was being organized.

I think that helped me not burn out so early and helped my overall athleticism.

SA: In your book “Go For the Goal” you addressed the problem of youth coaches sacrificing “learning skills for winning games.” Youth soccer has continued to get more expensive and paid coaches are the norm, so it would seem that pressure on winning has increased …

You’re right, with more money and coaches being paid they feel a lot more pressure to win and parents want a greater return on their investment, whether that’s a college scholarship or an opportunity to play on the youth national team or professionally.

SA: You’ve talked about pickup games – such as soccer at recess in grade school and playing with your brother – being a key to your development …

: That helped a lot. Playing against boys, against older kids who were more talented than I was -- and bigger, stronger, faster. But in the end what was so great was I put myself in those situations, and it was an environment to be able to hang out with my brother.

You don’t hear of as many kids playing pickup soccer as they used to because they’re training five days a week and play 12,000 games on the weekend.

SA: What advice do you have for parents of aspiring players?

My parents really allowed soccer -- and whatever I chose -- to be my passion and not theirs.

I heard one of my coaches say the best advice he can give to the parents is just be their parent.

As a parent myself, I can pay other people to do their job in terms of coaching my kids. I don’t want anyone but me and my husband to be their parents.

I look at that as the important role I can play in their lives. It doesn’t mean I won’t share my knowledge of soccer with them or occasionally go out and coach their teams, but I want to make sure they know I’m their parent first and they can come to me, and I hope they come to me for anything.

SA: What should parents be aware of when girls enter their adolescent years? For sure that’s a time of many changes that can affect the way they approach activities like soccer.

I’ve tried to block out that period of my life [laughs]. …

I think, yeah, there’s so much going on and most of it you don’t really understand or you can’t really comprehend.

What I would tell parents is just understand that things can change at a drop of a hat – emotionally, physically, psychologically – for your kids, and to just be there [for them]. And be flexible. And be open, and be that sounding board for them.

They could have a favorite dress and the next day say they hate it and it’s the ugliest dress they’ve ever seen. Or they could say Susi’s my best friend and now they’re not talking to one another.

Expect the unexpected and just make sure you’re there.

SA: How do you think girls benefit by playing sports during those years?

With girls going through puberty, I think it gives us a great outlet both socially and physically. Kind of get out some frustration, run it out. Have a group of friends with a common interest whom you can kind of lean on … talk about your parents and how they’re not listening to you [laughs].

I think it’s extremely important.

SA: What advice do you have for young soccer players?

Have fun and everyday you step out there let’s see how much better I can get. And doing it together is even better.

SA: Why did you decide to become the spokeswomen for “Go with the Grain”?

I’ve been talking, especially post-career, about the importance of a balanced diet and about how bread and grains are involved in that diet. Not just from an energy level, but they’re a great source of fiber. They’re low in fat, full of vitamins and minerals.

(Mia Hamm played for the USA from 1987 to 2004, scoring 158 goals in 275 games. She played at four World Cups and four Olympics, and won two titles at each competition. She also won four NCAA titles with North Carolina and the 2003 WUSA crown with the Washington Freedom. She was inducted into the National Hall of Fame in 2007, three years after her retirement.)