March 30, 2013
Michael Bradley: From 'runt of the litter' to U.S. star

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

U.S. midfielder Michael Bradley, who on Tuesday lines up against Mexico in his 22nd World Cup qualifier and 75th game for the USA, is the subject of the Youth Soccer Insider's latest edition of "When They Were Children."

At age 13, Michael Bradley watched the USA on a bitter cold night in Columbus, Ohio, that ended with sweet a 2-0 win over Mexico in World Cup qualifying.

“And I remember waking up really early in the morning in 2002 to watch the U.S. beat Mexico at the World Cup in Korea,” Bradley said on the eve of Tuesday's Azteca World Cup qualifier. “Soccer in this country has gotten to the point that we remember these games, we were grew up with these games, so now when it's your chance to step on the field and represent the United States in a game like this, you don’t take it lightly.”

The second time Bradley played against Mexico, in 2009, he scored both goals in a 2-0 World Cup qualifying win.

Bradley signed a professional contract with MLS at age 16 and played for his father, Bob Bradley, with the MetroStars. Bob, now Egypt's national team coach, was also his coach with the USA until Jurgen Klinsmann took over in 2011.

Bob Bradley sometimes helped out with Michael's youth teams but never coached one. In a 2007, I asked him whether it was it important to him that his son would become an exceptional player.

"No," he said. "You hope to help your kids find things that they have passion for, things that they really love, and things that they want to put something into. That was just the way we always approached it.

"Our oldest daughter, Kerry, loved ballet and was a very serious dancer for a long time. Our youngest daughter Ryan has played soccer and tennis.

"As a young kid, Michael was always around the game, and he was around good soccer people. I'm sure that had a lot to do with his love for the game."

David Richardson was Michael Bradley’s coach with the Sockers FC Chicago youth club when Bob was head coach of MLS's Chicago Fire.

"How he is now compared to how he was as a youth player, it's a neat story," said Richardson. "He was the runt of the litter. Athletically, he wasn't, let's say, fully developed. Sometimes when you look a youth team, people say the best guys are the ones who are the better athletes.

"Mike wasn't that. But he loved the game. He had a passion for it. He was a soccer rat. And he always had the desire to improve."

Michael’s favorite hangout was the Sockers' headquarters -- the Soccer City indoor facility in Palatine, where his mother, Lindsay, would drop him off almost daily after school.

"Some young players shy away from the things they're not good at," said Richardson. "Mike understood his weaknesses. He focused on them rather than avoiding them, whether it was defensive play or the fact that he wasn't the fastest guy."

Michael would arrive at Soccer City and jump in with whatever teams were in action. Often they were the older groups.

"The kid wanted to play, all day, every day," says Lindsay. "It didn't matter with whom or when."

He entered U.S. Soccer's U-17 Residency Program in Bradenton, Fla. when John Hackworth, now head coach of the Philadelphia Union, was the U.S. U-17 assistant coach.

"When Michael first got into residency, he was a really small kid, with really good technical ability," says Hackworth. "He was up to my shoulder when he arrived. He was taller than me when he left. Now he towers above me."

But Hackworth says he and head coach John Ellinger believed then he had the potential to be "a phenomenal pro" because of his work ethic and because he was a student of the game.

"Michael might be the best example of how important it is to recognize that kids develop at different ages," Hackworth says. "He wasn't really fast. He's still not very fast. He was always a really good player. He just needed time to physically mature and continue developing.

"Michael is the example of a player who recognizes the educational aspects on the field, but also off it. He understood what it takes to dedicate yourself to the game and have focus and commitment."

March 27, 2013
Getting players to pay attention

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

It's perfectly reasonable that children who show up to soccer practice might have a difficult time paying attention when the coach has something to say. They have, after all, spent an entire day at
school listening to adults. And now it's playtime.

But even those coaches who follow the Three L's -- “No laps, no lines, no lectures” -- must at times address the entire group.

So how do you get a group of chatty, fidgety youngsters to pay attention for a few seconds?

For young children, there are those methods used by elementary school teachers: “If you can hear me, clap once. … If you can hear me, clap twice, etc;” various clapping patterns for the kids to follow; “1-2-3 Eyes on me” …

“I just talk quieter until they realize they have to quiet down to hear the info,” says Julie Eibensteiner, coach at Minnesota’s Woodbury SC. “But I think how you carry yourself and your approach to practice usually commands attention. The more you say, the less value you have when you talk. If you only speak when you have something valuable to say, they will be waiting for it and tune in when you do talk.”

The coach’s positioning, posture and demeanor are crucial, explains Ian Barker, the NSCAA’s Director of Coaching of Education:

“Take off the sunglasses and baseball cap, so they can see your eyes,” Barker says. “Turn their backs to the sun. … Turn their backs to distractions (parents, other action, etc.)

“Get down to their level … squat or sit. Talk softly, so they have to listen harder. Tell a story or a joke to draw them in. Use first names or nicknames they respond to. … Sometimes I engage the most energetic child and his or her focus on me draws in the others.”

Sam Snow, US Youth Soccer’s Coaching Director, recommends initially making eye contact with all of the players, so that they know it's time to tune in.

Once you do get their attention, there’s the matter of retaining it.

“Older players also tune out during a coach monologue, they are just better at faking rapt attention,” says Snow. “When the players know the coach's talk will be just another long monologue their attention quite naturally wanders. By engaging the players with one or two questions at the halftime or at a natural stoppage during a training session activity, the coach has the players' attention.”

Michael O'Neill is the girls Director Of Coaching of New Jersey’s PDA.

“Keep it simple,” he says. “Quick and concise is the only way!”

To players, he stresses the importance of eye contact and that only one person can talk at a time. For his coaches: “Patience, tone of voice -- and eventually the good habits will take over.”

For sure, a coach's job with a bunch of 6-year-olds is mainly about creating an active environment for them to discover the joys of the game. But just because the players are older doesn’t mean the lecture is effective.

In his book, “The Talent Code,” Daniel Coyle investigated highly successful coaches and teachers. He reported that advice or instructions uttered by the great basketball coach, John Wooden, averaged four seconds: “No lectures, no extended harangues … he rarely spoke longer than 20 seconds.”

What the great coaches and teachers Coyle studied had in common:

“The listened far more than they talked. They seemed allergic to giving pep talks or inspiring speeches; they spent most of their time offering small, targeted, highly specific adjustments. They had an extraordinary sensitivity to the person they were teaching, customizing each message to each student’s personality. … They were talent whisperers.”

Further Reading: YouthSoccerInsider Lecture them not

(Mike Woitalla, the executive editor of Soccer America, is the co-author, with Tim Mulqueen, of The Complete Soccer Goalkeeper. Woitalla's youth soccer articles are archived at YouthSoccerFun.com.)

March 16, 2013
'Crazier than it's ever been' (Jimmy Obleda, Fullerton Rangers, Q&A)

According to Jimmy Obleda, the 2011 NSCAA Youth National Coach of the Year, the U.S. Soccer Development Academy has made the youth soccer landscape an "absolute mess."

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

The Director of Coaching of Southern California's Fullerton Rangers, who have won back-to-back U.S. Youth Soccer national titles, Obleda also explains why he believes Lionel Messi wouldn’t have made it through the U.S. system.

SOCCER AMERICA: How does not being part of the U.S. Soccer Development Academy affect Fullerton Rangers?

JIMMY OBLEDA: It keeps us on our toes. It encourages us to work harder and make our product even better, to raise the standards of our training, of our coaching education, of the environment we work and train in. …

But [the Academy] has definitely changed the landscape, making it an absolute mess. Youth soccer in America, I speak from my experience in Southern California, is crazier than it’s ever been.

SA: How so?

JIMMY OBLEDA: The Academy is only for an “elite,” selected few. “Elite” I say in quotations because there are clubs in it that shouldn’t be in there. And there are clubs that aren’t in that should be in. It’s an entitlement status where – “You have great players, they need to play for me. … You need to play with us if you’re going to have any chance of making anything.”

Well, they don’t want to come play for you, because you don’t provide for them what they see as beneficial to them, regardless of what people are saying. And it’s being found out.

If they’re doing the right things, let’s encourage those people. It should be about who's doing the right thing, not who got baptized or was blessed with a patch, or a special status.

SA: Why would you think Fullerton Rangers might provide a better environment than an Academy club?

JIMMY OBLEDA: We have 40 teams. So as a director, I’m able to manage 40 teams and their coaches. I’m able to observe them, to come out weekly, daily -- and know exactly where they're at. My staff and I know every kid in the club and we have a direct impact on every kid. And we can have a discussion about each one and where they stand in their development.

To play in the Academy, we’d need to field 200, 150 teams. That takes away the integrity. I’m not going to sell myself out to that, franchise myself like that – because we maintain a manageable group.

SA: But the giant club model has become very popular …

JIMMY OBLEDA: Everyone talks about Europe and the youth systems there. Clubs have one team per age group. You know the coach who’s working in those age groups. You put the coaches in the right positions.

It’s become a money issue when you have clubs with 200 teams. There are not 200 phenomenal coaches in one club.

We’ve been successful because of the quality of what we provide for our kids and I don’t want to take away the integrity of what’s made us successful – and the only way to support an Academy program is to grow to 200 or 150 teams.

I’m amazed. You have parents whose players are playing in the seventh team in an age group and paying top dollar to play in these elite clubs. And those kids will never be on their top teams, because they’re going to take that money and they’re going to try and recruit my players.

SA: Non-Academy club coaches are complaining that when their players go to a youth national team camp, they’re highly encouraged to leave their clubs for Academy clubs. Do you believe that’s the case?

JIMMY OBLEDA: Absolutely, every time a kid goes to the national team. Every time a kid comes back [I hear that]. One in particular got called in and they asked him twice to leave and he said, "No, I want to stay.”

SA: And you believe a player may not be invited back to a national team camp because he didn’t change clubs?

JIMMY OBLEDA: Yes. It could affect me to speak out on this – but I’m at a point where people need to know what’s going on.

[Editor’s note: U.S. Development Academy Director of Scouting Tony Lepore, in a previous YouthSoccerInsider, said “it would never happen” that a player wouldn’t be invited to a national team camp because he didn’t switch to an Academy team.]

SA: They deny that something like that would happen …

JIMMY OBLEDA: Sure, but it’s out there. If you don’t leave [your current club], you will not get called back in.

I’m not an anti-Academy person. I know some of the things are great from the soccer standpoint. But it’s become this, “If you’re not with us you’re against us.” Well, you’re not allowing us to be with you.

I’m doing everything you’re telling me to. Our teams train four days a week. We have speed agility training. We do everything they want, and on top of it we’re getting punished.

SA: If you look at the U.S. national team and compare it to the squads of the last three decades -- we really don’t see an increase in the number of truly exceptional, creative players. Why would that be considering the increase in players, coaches and investment at the youth level?

JIMMY OBLEDA: Those kids exist. I see those kids. But what happens when they get a certain level of our hierarchy of American soccer?

They don’t fit our system. Do have we want those guys who are attacking and dribbling? No, we don’t. We want big, strong, athletic kids. If you dribble too much, dude, you’re out.

Our system pushes the exceptional players out.

Would have Lionel Messi made it in this country? No. He wouldn’t have, because he’s short and he dribbles too much. He’s a ball hog so he doesn’t fit in our system. "We need a guy who’s going to defend more here …”

March 01, 2013
The Great Halftime Pep Talk

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

If you're watching a game on TV, and a team stages a second-half comeback, you'll likely hear the commentators speculating on what brilliance the coach imparted during halftime, on what motivational technique he used:

“They came out of the locker room fired up. … Whatever he said at halftime, it ignited them."

So I’m coaching 13-year-old girls. We’re down, 1-0, at halftime. As they get their water, I’m composing in my mind the "speech." It’s going to be concise, powerful, inspirational.

After I get their attention, I’ll pause, scan their faces, and they’ll sit silently as they eagerly await my words of wisdom … and then I'll say:

“We’re down 1-0. So what? Yesterday we were down 2-0. And what happened? We came back to win! We’re playing even better today. But after they scored we looked a little nervous and started making mistakes. We need to relax. Take our time with the ball, and pass it around like we did in the first 15 minutes. And our goals will come! I know they will! … Claudia, lead the cheer!”

Not bad, I think -- but it never came out that way.

It was actually more like this:

I finally get their attention. The silent pause lasts a half-second because a couple of girls remember something they needed to share – right now – with the teammates next to them. And I get them to settle down again ...

COACH MIKE: We’re down 1-0. So what? Yesterday we were down 2-0! We just need to ...

CAROL: No we weren’t, Coach Mike. We were down 2-1.

COACH MIKE: We were down 2-0. And then we scored three goals!

CAROL: It was 2-1 at halftime and today it’s 1-0 …

KIM: She’s right, Coach Mike, it was 2-1 at halftime yesterday.

COACH MIKE: I know, but it was 2-0 before it was 2-1. The point is …

MOLLY: It was 2-0 and then Claudia scored …

HANNAH: I thought Claudia scored the second goal?

CLAUDIA: I scored the first goal, Kathy scored the second goal. Right Kathy?

COACH MIKE: Look, the point is …

KATHY: I scored the third goal. Victoria scored the second goal.

ASHLEY: Emma set it up …

COACH MIKE: OK now, just listen …

LAURA: Coach Mike, if we win today, is the final next Saturday or Sunday?

COACH MIKE: Look, we just need to … [Ref blows whistle] … Claudia, lead the cheer! ...

Well, we scored right away and ended up winning -- and that’s now my favorite halftime ever.

(Mike Woitalla, the executive editor of Soccer America, coaches youth soccer for East Bay United/Bay Oaks in Oakland, Calif. He is the co-author, with Tim Mulqueen, of The Complete Soccer Goalkeeper. Woitalla's youth soccer articles are archived at YouthSoccerFun.com.)