October 30, 2012
Combating an injury epidemic (Dr. Bert Mandelbaum Q&A)

Dr. Bert Mandelbaum, the team physician for U.S. Soccer national teams, has been a pioneer in researching ACL injury trends among female athletes and creating injury prevention methods for soccer players. We talked to him about what youth coaches can do to decrease the chances of injuries and the FIFA 11+ warmup procedure that he's promoting through the Sports Injury Prevention Program.

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

SOCCER AMERICA: I had a couple of USSF-nationally licensed coaches when I played youth soccer in the 1970s and 80s. Now I coach U-13 girls. If I warm up my players the same way my coaches warmed up us back then, might I be doing it incorrectly?

BERT MANDELBAUM: You would not be doing it right.

We spent the late 1990s studying youth soccer – here in Southern California where unfortunately it is so competitive and it is a 12-month season for most young, competitive girls – and we saw many injuries in the anterior cruciate ligament (ACL).

ACL injuries had become a tremendous epidemic problem in 14- to 18-year-old girls. We began to ask ourselves, “How the heck is this happening?”

We watched hundreds of videos. We observed how they land, jump and accelerate. We came up with a consensus based on neuromuscular control and the position and the biomechanics of landing. We created the PEP (Prevent injury, Enhance Performance Program), which were basically five exercises that took 20 minutes … that would be the warm-up that would get these young girls to do the things that they weren’t doing naturally, that they weren’t pre-programmed for.

SA: You noticed a difference between the boys and girls …

BERT MANDELBAUM: If you compare young boys and young girls at the same age – the boys would be down low like Cobi Jones. Everything is very low to the ground. And the young girls would be like giraffes. Where their hips, their knees would be located in the wrong position when they land and jump.

It was so consistently scientific that the Program made a huge difference. That it finally taught them how to do these things.

SA: When one talks about today’s children playing too much organized soccer -- such as in tournament formats with several games in a weekend -- some will point out that previous generations played pickup soccer all day and it wasn’t a problem. Is that a fair comparison?

BERT MANDELBAUM: There’s a big difference. If you’re playing a pickup game and it’s 104 degrees, maybe you play for 45 minutes, sit under a tree for 45 minutes, then you may go play for another 20 minutes. Then you maybe you say, OK I’m just gonna watch the baseball game in the afternoon because it’s too hot. Then come out in the evening. You control yourself.

When you’re playing these tournaments when it’s 98 degrees and you’re also playing midweek games -- 98 degrees and 95 percent humidity, and you have three games a day, that doesn’t make sense.

One thing we do know, with fatigue, all these biomechanical deficiencies that we’re trying to correct worsen. We try and correct bad biomechanics. But with fatigue, we know they crawl out the bottom. All of them. So if you have someone playing in 98 degrees -- and usually with 14-year-old girls it’s playing 60 minutes -- by minute 45 she’s so fatigued the biomechanics just go out. There’s no way of her preventing herself from doing the bad things that she was trying to prevent.

The first game is no different than the fifth game. In fact maybe the fifth game is even more intense than the first.

I’ve been with MLS since its inception [1996] and we have a hard time getting the guys to play games on Thursday and Sundays. Here are these kids playing five games Saturday and Sunday.

I think we’re doing the wrong thing there. I think we’re sending the wrong message. We’re potentially increasing the injury rate.

SA: Many coaches feel they have no option but to compete in weekend tournaments because they have become such a major part of the youth soccer culture. What can they do to ensure the health of his or her players?

BERT MANDELBAUM: If you have to do this, have more players and substitute as much as you can. Rehydrate them as best you can. And have them live by the concept that “less is more.”

SA: For what age level is FIFA 11+ designed for?

BERT MANDELBAUM: The program was developed initially for 14- to 18-year-olds girls. Then 14- to 18-year-old boys. Now it’s really for all ages. The FIFA 11+ program is set up as a core warmup that can be done for any ages.

SA: What do you say to youth coaches who don’t implement the whole warm-up because they may see it as 20 minutes less to train other things during a 90-minute soccer practice?

BERT MANDELBAUM: If you brush your teeth only once a week, you’re going to get more cavities. Prevention is prevention.

This is a priority. If you look at FIFA 11+ data, you find you can reduce overuse injuries by a half.

Yes, that particular evening you’re going to feel pressured to get it all in. The reality is it’s like an investment. You’ll get more on the other side.

If you understand the front-end, if you understand the impact, and you calculate the number of days lost [because of injuries] for your team, you’re going to come out way ahead by the end of the season.

For more on the Sports Injury Prevention Program, go here and here.
For more on the FIFA 11+ Warm-up Program and downloadable Manual, go here.
For a video of Cobi Jones and Alex Morgan demonstrating FIFA 11+ exercises, go here.

October 15, 2012
'Relate to the kids' (Q&A with NSCAA's Ian Barker, Part 1)

Ian Barker became Director of Coaching of the 30,000-member National Soccer Coaches Association of America (NSCAA) in February. A longtime ODP coach, he served as Minnesota Youth Soccer Association Director of Coaching (1997-2007) and spent more than two decades coaching college ball. In Part 1 of our interview we spoke with Barker about youth coaching in America.

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

SOCCER AMERICA: What advice would you give to someone about to start coaching youth soccer for the first time – whether it’s a parent without soccer experience or someone with an extensive soccer background who has never coached children?

IAN BARKER: Do not force it. Instead feed off your strengths as a parent and communicator and relate to the kids. That is not to say you should not try to acquire some knowledge of content and method. To get started see if you can effectively copy someone who keeps things flowing and keeps the kids engaged. The less, despite reasonable angst, you can make it about you and more about being with kids in a sport environment the better. Do not be afraid of your "ignorance."

SA: What is a common trait of youth coaches that you would like to see less of?

IAN BARKER: I really think many youth coaches would do better with less formal structure and that includes lengthy verbal explanation or revision of the obvious. If the youth coach can manage a safe environment and find activity that reflects the "organic" nature and flow of the game I think kids can learn and enjoy.

SA: When you observe youth soccer practices at the younger ages what would make you think the coach is doing a good job?

IAN BARKER: A good job would see the kids moving, that the activity is soccer relevant and that frequency touching the ball and making decisions is very high. Certainly the coach must be engaged, but that does not mean they have to be moving or talking a great deal. Kids moving, experiencing the game with minimal, but pointed interjections from the coach is a session I would look for.

SA: Besides the NSCAA, other organizations such as U.S. Soccer and U.S. Youth Soccer, offer coaching education courses. How should youth coaches decide where to take their coaching courses?

IAN BARKER: As many of our youth coaches are parents then I think look for role models among your peer group and find out how they got to a level of proficiency you respect. Perhaps consulting a paid, experienced club director is less helpful than seeking to emulate someone "like you."

For the younger coaches, high school and college players, the same applies, observe what you like and do not like and understand how these behaviors were trained. Very often the things that impact us most as effective coaches are acquired in formal coaching schools through the presentations and the interactions with other candidates, and also outside of schools by observing good practices.

SA: How much of a problem is an emphasis on winning games in American youth soccer?

IAN BARKER: It is a real problem, but one I feel is much easier to fix than we understand. Rather than wholesale changes in the structures of competition, coach training, rules and regulations etc., I think it comes down to how adults act and how you can impact a culture by continual examples of good practice.

I believe the more coaches and parents who make the effort to keep things in a context, the more that others will see that and will follow the example. Wanting to win is not the problem; it is the overemphasis that is placed on winning and losing relative to kids playing, learning to love the sport and learning to play it effectively. The problem is placing value in winning so far ahead of a long-term development of the child, the player and the sport.

October 13, 2012
On losing without a loss (Q&A: U-17 coach Albertin Montoya)

In a year that saw the U.S. women win Olympic gold and lift the U-20 World Cup, the U.S. U-17 girls suffered a first-round exit at the U-17 World Cup in Azerbaijan last month, despite going undefeated and conceding only one goal. The two teams that edged the USA on goal difference, France and North Korea, reached the final. We spoke with U.S. U-17 coach Albertin Montoya, the director of Northern California youth club MVLA who took the U-17 helm after guiding FC Gold Pride to the 2010 WPS title.

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

SOCCER AMERICA: What's it like getting eliminated from a World Cup without losing a game?

ALBERTIN MONTOYA: We knew going into it we were in the Group of Death – three out of probably the best five teams in the world in the same group. I’d seen both those teams play several times over the past year and I felt North Korea, France and Japan were the three best teams I had seen. So when we got France and North Korea in our group, we knew we had our hands full.

Unfortunately, we didn't play all that well against France [a 0-0 tie in the group opener]. Then against Gambia we didn’t put enough goals in [a 6-0 win]. Against North Korea we had a 1-1 score against one of the best teams in the world.

But France was the game I thought we had to win. … Three teams tied with five points. Only conceded one goal and we don’t go through. But that’s how it goes.

[Editor’s Note: North Korea and France beat Gambia 11-0 and 10-2, respectively, for a superior goal difference over the USA.]

SA: How’d the girls take it?

ALBERTIN MONTOYA: They took it pretty hard. It’s a group that had come together over this last year and a half. They became a family. They cared so much about each other.

They put a lot of time and energy trying to be the best team in the world. But knowing it was the last time for them playing together as a group -- because we had been through a lot and had great memories -- that hurt probably just as much as not advancing.

SA: The U.S. U-17 girls don’t seem to have much luck. They failed (under coach Kazbek Tambi) to qualify for the 2010 World Cup after losing to Canada on penalty kicks …

ALBERTIN MONTOYA: They were very unlucky because that was also an exceptional team. You know how the game can be so cruel. They were the best team in Concacaf and Canada took them into PKs. The U.S. did not qualify because only two teams from the region advanced because Trinidad & Tobago was hosting the World Cup and had the third berth.

[EDITOR'S NOTE: At the inaugural U-17 World Cup in 2008, also under Tambi, the USA lost in the final, 2-1, to North Korea in overtime.]

SA: So you think one shouldn’t read too much into the results of these last two U-17 teams?

ALBERTIN MONTOYA: I really don’t. The U-17s that didn’t qualify for the 2010 World Cup scored 38 goals-for and zero-against, and they don’t go to the World Cup because of PKs.

And with us, we did well at Concacaf, finished first, and at the World Cup drew against the two teams that are in the final. It could have easily been us ...

I will say that Japan and North Korea have separated themselves at the youth level. The Asian teams pretty much have residency on the girls’ side. They go to school together. They train six, seven days a week. They know each other so well. France is starting to do that, where they get together two or three teams a month, often training several weeks together.

SA: Compared to your team …

ALBERTIN MONTOYA: For the U.S. we have a training camp for a week every other month or so and the players come are in from different environments and different club cultures and different soccer styles.

When we come together – that’s been the challenge for me as a national team coach – much different than with the club, when you can mold a team to play a certain way because you have them year-round.

With the national team, these players may not even play the same position they’re playing with national team that they do with their clubs.

The first few days of camp are always kinda getting them back into right mind frame and mentality and adjusting to our system and the way we want to play. And by the time they’re playing well, it’s time to go back home.

North Korea, Japan and France put a lot of effort into keeping their teams together for long periods of times and it’s paying dividends, even at the older age groups. Great teams win World Cups, not always great players.

SA: How do you think your bosses judge you – whether you win or how many players move on to the full national team?

ALBERTIN MONTOYA: I don’t know. Time will tell. When I took on the position they told me they wanted me to help develop these players and play a style of soccer that my [club] youth players play, but then you always have the pressure of getting results and winning.

SA: What did you think about the American players in general at this age group? Do you feel confident you saw all the players you needed to see to find the best group you could take?

ALBERTIN MONTOYA: I feel comfortable that we had a pretty good grasp on the best players in the country. But what I will go back to – and what we keep saying as a country for both our men and women – that we could be better technically. And tactically as well, but technically we’re still not comfortable enough with the ball.

We talk about playing a certain way. We want to possess the ball much more. But in order to do that we have to have players who just love being with the ball at their feet.

The challenging part about the national team is you have to get the right mixture of athletes and players who can play, and kind of put it together, and at the same time developing the players.

When you see some of these other countries and how good they are with the ball. For example, that North Korea team, every single one of them handled the ball like a No. 10.

SA: What was it like going from club coaching to national team coach?

ALBERTIN MONTOYA: As a club coach, looking from the outside in, I would watch our national teams and think, gosh, why aren’t we playing a certain way? Why can’t we player better than that?

Now that I’ve been there – I kind of put it back on us club coaches, which is we need to do a better job developing these players technically so when they do go to the national team stage we can play the way we talk about we want to play. But we need the players to be able to do that.

I even fell into the trap where, maybe we don’t have enough of those type of players. So we need the athletes who can compete a certain way to help you get the results.

Ideally, you have the athletes with the technical skill. We’ve got to get our players better all-around with the ball. It goes back to doing that from 8 to 12 years old and building that foundation.

We talk about it all the time, all around the country, we have just got to get it done. Get coaches on board. We’ve got to get top coaches at the younger age groups. Unfortunately that’s just not happening enough.