A game for your players’ parents!

If you want success as a coach you have to make sure all the parts go together. One of the most important parts is your parents. They have the ability to make or break your season. You not only need them on your side, you need them to support and help your players at the side of the pitch.

One of the ways I do this is to get them on the pitch and get your players on the side and play a game with your players shouting at their parents. It’s a good bonding exercise and a good way to show parents how they must be positive not negative towards the players.

Call a meeting of your players’ parents and tell them to bring their trainers. Start by laying down the laws for behaviour at matches – this is one of the most important things you will do. Parents like discipline and guidance.

End the meeting by making the parents play a short match.

Tell the parents to sort themselves into two teams and get your players to stand on the sideline and scream and shout at them like parents do at matches. The children will love doing this.

Get them to play a short game – 5 minutes each way – with the children shouting from the sidelines.

Add some confusion yourself by shouting “CLEAR IT” or “SHOOT!”

After the game ask them what they could hear from the sidelines. Most will say “it was too difficult to listen when I was trying to concentrate”. Then ask them what they think their own children hear. They should see that reacting to situations is hard enough without being shouted at.

For the parents who did hear what was said – often what you the coach shouted – ask them if this instruction or direction helped them.

The only thing that yelling directions or instructions to a player accomplishes is to distract them from their focus.

By showing the grown ups how it feels to be a player they should realise that shouting at them is not a positive thing. Some parents will still yell their heads off, but they have been taught a lesson in using positive language and the majority will do so.

Sports Training – How Much is Too Much?

By Lyle Micheli, M.D.

reproduced by permission of the Mass Youth Soccer Association

Kids are starting sports earlier and training harder. Incentives to win are growing, sometimes literally – I’ve seen trophies almost bigger than the little athletes who’ve won them! With higher stakes have come pressures to perform better by being fitter and more skilled. Usually, this is achieved through repetition, repetition, repetition – whether it is serving a tennis ball, pitching a baseball, or performing a figure-skating double axel.

In kids’ sports programs, fitness and skill development have to be balanced with the need to avoid overtraining. Overtraining is when the athlete is required to do too much – either physically or mentally, or both.

Parents need to be sensitive to changes in performance and attitude that suggest their kids are being pushed too hard. Such changes may be precursors of physical injury.

Signs of overtraining
– Slower times in distance sports such as running, cycling, and swimming
– Deterioration in execution of sports plays or routines such as those performed in figure skating and gymnastics
– Decreased ability to achieve training goals
– Lack of motivation to practice
– Getting tired easily
– Irritability and unwillingness to cooperate with teammates

Unfortunately, the tendency when a parent or coach is confronted with signs of overtraining is to push the child harder. But if overtraining is the culprit, any increase in training will only worsen the situation.

And as I have suggested, training too much may eventually lead to overuse injuries in which actual damage to the bones and soft tissues occurs because the body can’t recover from the repetitive physical demands placed on it by sport activity.

This raises an important question: How much is too much? Not a great deal of hard data is available on this subject. That’s because to find out exactly how much training is safe, we’d have to take large groups of kids and put them through grueling sports drills and wait there with our clipboards for them to collapse in pain. I don’t think we could find too many parents who’d be willing to turn over their kids for such tests! In the absence of data obtained from clinical studies, we need to formulate our guidelines based on observations made over the years by coaches and sports scientists.

How long can kids train?
As a general rule, children shouldn’t train for more than 18-20 hours a week. If a child is engaged in elite competition there may be pressures to train for longer – especially in the lead-up to a major event. Anytime a child trains for longer than this recommended length of time she must be monitored by a qualified sports doctor with expertise in young athletes. This is to make sure abnormalities in growth or maturation do not occur. Any joint pain lasting more than two weeks is justification for a visit to the sports doctor.

It’s also important to ensure restrictions against excessive sports activity are not exceeded. For instance, young baseball pitchers in America are not allowed to pitch more than seven innings a week. While this restriction is mostly adhered to in the game setting, it is pointless if kids are pressured by their coaches to throw excessively during practices (parents, too, need to remember that going to the park with their kid to “throw a few” needs to be counted as part of the number of pitches he makes).

In general, young baseball players shouldn’t perform more than 300 “skilled throws” a week; any more than this and the risk of injury dramatically increases.

How much of an increase in training is safe?
Increasing the frequency, duration, or intensity of training too quickly is one of the main causes of injury. To prevent injuries caused by too-rapid increases in training, I am a strong believer in athletes following the “ten-percent rule.” The rule refers to the amount a young athlete’s training can be increased every week without risking injury. In other words, a child running 20 minutes at a time four times a week can probably safely run 22 minutes four times a week the week after, an increase of ten percent.

Most of the injuries I see in my clinic are the product of violations of the ten percent rule, when young athletes have their training regimen increased “too much, too soon.”

“Too much too soon” scenarios
The football player, who, after a summer of inactivity, goes straight into a fall pre-season training camp.
The swimmer who normally trains at 5000 yards per day but then is asked to swim 8000 yards a day for three consecutive days.
The dancer who does 12 hours of classes per week and then suddenly is training six hours per day, six days a week at a summer dance program.
The gymnast, who, in the weeks before a major event, doubles her training time.

How hard should kids train?
When young athletes are growing the emphasis should be on developing athletic technique. Although power or speed are important qualities in sports, stressing them to children at the expense of technique can lead to injuries. Once good technique is mastered, power and speed can be introduced.

It is important for you to safeguard your children against being overtrained. The danger of this happening is especially acute if your child is an elite athlete or one engaged in a very competitive sports environment. Perhaps the most effective measure any parent can take is to make sure his child’s coach is certified. Another is to look out for the signs of overtraining, as described above, as well as the early signs of injuries themselves. A strength training program is an important component of any injury prevention program for athletes – kids included.

In many cases, I believe, kids drop out of sports because of low-grade pain that is actually the early stage of an overuse injury. The pain is never diagnosed as an early-stage overuse injury because the child simply quits the program. What this may do is prejudice a child against physical activity and exercise for life. The same is true for mental stress in sports.

Given the state of fitness in this country, overtraining children has the opposite effect of what we want, which is to instill in our young people a love of exercise that will stay with them through life, and inspire them to stay fit and healthy long after their youth sports days are done.

Dr. Micheli co-founded and is director of the world’s first sports medicine clinic for children, located at Boston Children’s Hospital. He is also the chairperson of the Massachusetts Governor’s Committee on Physical Fitness and Sports, and a past president of the American College of Sports Medicine.

Soccer team rules

The following are some suggested rules for young soccer players, taken from the footy4kids soccer coaching philosophy and codes of conduct.

Any such rules should be discussed and agreed before the season starts, preferably at a pre-season meeting.

  • Play according to the laws and spirit of the game.
  • Be on time and be prepared for matches and training sessions.
  • Display self-control in all situations. Never use foul or abusive language – before, during or after a game or training session.
  • Train and play to the best of your ability, have a positive attitude, and encourage others to do the same.
  • Respect the opposition. Treat them as you would like them to treat you.
  • Respect the referee. Never dispute his or her decisions. They are only human and they make mistakes, just like you.
  • Turn up for training and matches in appropriate and clean clothing.
  • Wear the right sort of footwear (studded boots). Note: we recommend against the use of blades on health and safety grounds.
  • Always wear shinpads.
  • Clean your own boots/trainers!

Soccer physics

bend the ball

Physics is the branch of science that deals with (surprise!) the physical world and its properties. It attempts to explain in mathematical terms the behaviour of matter as we observe it.

To understand why soccer balls curve, how high they bounce, how the pressure in the ball affects the bounce and even what sort of boots to wear, we need to use things like Newton’s laws of motion, Bernoulli’s discoveries about fluid flow, Maxwell’s equations of electromagnetics, Einstein’s theories of gravitation and relativistic motion, and a lot of other complicated-but-cool stuff.

Why can’t I kick the ball HARD?

You might be taking a long, slow strike at the ball rather than a shorter, sharp strike. This is because a big windup doesn’t necessarily impart sufficient kinetic energy (mass x velocity squared divided by 2). This explains why short, stocky players can generate power on the ball–a short, fast strike contributes to kinetic energy as a square versus the linear increase of weight alone.

Also your head might be coming up on the strike – if you look up as the ball leaves your foot, you impart less mass and velocity, ergo less kinetic energy.

Forces acting on a curving soccer ball

bend the ballThis is a bird’s-eye view of a football spinning about an axis perpendicular to the flow of air across it. The air travels faster relative to the centre of the ball where the periphery of the ball is moving in the same direction as the airflow (left). This reduces the pressure, according to Bernoulli’s principle. The pressure increases on the other side of the ball, where the air travels slower relative to the centre of the ball (right). There is therefore an imbalance in the forces, and the ball deflects in the same sense as the spin – from bottom right to top left. This lift force is also known as the “Magnus force”, after the 19th-century German physicist Gustav Magnus.

Assuming that the velocity of the ball is 25-30 ms-1 (about 70 mph) and that the spin is about 8-10 revolutions per second, then the lift force turns out to be about 3.5 N. The regulations state that a professional football must have a mass of 410-450 g, which means that it accelerates by about 8 ms-2. And since the ball would be in flight for 1 s over its 30 m trajectory, the lift force could make the ball deviate by as much as 4 m from its normal straight-line course. Enough to trouble any goalkeeper!

Playing soccer on the Moon

soccer on the moonDuring an Apollo 17 Lunar landing mission, the astronauts took time out to play a game of soccer on the surface of the Moon with a 200 lb. moon rock.

How?

The “weight” of an object on the Moon is 1/6th that on Earth. (its mass, of course, remains the same)

THAT’S THE WAY THE BALL BOUNCES!

bouncing ballSuppose a soccer ball is dropped from rest at a height of 10 feet. And assume, on each successive bounce, the ball reaches half the previous height attained. How long will it take for the ball to finally come to rest?

Surprisingly, most people immediately and incorrectly guess that the time involved would be infinite. But, the time of each bounce shortens quickly, and using the simple expression d=½ × g × t² for the distance (d) travelled from rest during the time (t) under gravity (g=32 feet/sec/sec), an infinite series leads to a finite time of 4.61 seconds for the ball to come to rest.

Soccer academies – stepping stones or exploitation?

“I’ve seen the future and I’m scared”

by Matt Slater – BBC Sport

For the last month or so I have been speaking to people involved in youth football (soccer) development in England and to say that our conversations have been illuminating is an understatement. They have also been equal parts encouraging and depressing.

The starting point for my interest in the subject was Rafa Benitez, or more precisely his pre-Christmas rant that academies, which were set up in 1998, weren’t working.

My initial reaction was to dismiss his comments as a case of getting his excuses in early, or perhaps a not-very coded message to Liverpool academy boss Steve Heighway. That soon, however, gave way to indignant jingoism – “you cheeky Spanish git, how dare you suggest our lads aren’t as good as your lads etc etc”.

But with memories of last summer’s World Cup still fresh, I reconsidered. Rafa could be on to something here. After all, the entire academy system is currently under review. And wouldn’t I be annoyed if the only product of a £3m a year coaching complex was Stephen Warnock?

So I spoke to youth development experts at the Football Association, Football League, Premier League, a few clubs and even a few interested outside observers.

What they told me was that academies have been a great success…and a complete waste of time and money.

The quality of coaching is improving all the time…and no better than before.

Our clubs are producing better athletes with better techniques…and nowhere nearly enough players of Premiership quality.

English kids are coming through the system and the first real batch of the academy years are only now reaching maturity…under-pressure managers are still more likely to prefer a short-term fix from the transfer market than an unproven youngster from the academy.

And so it went on. Numbers of coaches and decent facilities, up. Actual time spent with a ball, down.

Some clubs struggling to turn expensively-nurtured potential into Premiership reality, while others can’t stop turning out first-teamers and internationals.

Some clubs eager to join the academy gang and unearth some Gareth Bales of their own, while others starting to wonder if that youth development money can’t be better spent somewhere else, namely abroad.

But what everybody agreed on was that youth development matters. And it will matter even more if we start to miss international tournaments again. What good is having the world’s most popular league if we can’t actually play the game ourselves?

Two of the most passionate people I spoke to were Football League development manager Graham Hawkins and Brazilian Soccer Schools founder Simon Clifford.

Hawkins is as football establishment as they come. He played for some of this country’s oldest and most storied clubs and went on to manage Wolves. He is now chief cheerleader for the Football League’s academies and centres of excellence.

Clifford is as far removed from the football establishment as it is probably possible to be whilst still making a living from the game in this country. A former teacher who turned to football coaching after meeting Juninho’s dad at Boro, Clifford has been upsetting FA suits for years with his radical plans and outspoken style.

Inside or outside the gang, both agreed on a few core issues that can no longer be brushed under “World’s best league/brand” carpet.

1) The money at the top is not filtering down (the Premier League, which will earn £1.7bn next season, gave Football League clubs just £4.2m to help fund their youth set-ups this season).

2) The top flight’s riches make getting there or staying there all important. This leads to short-termism, particularly in regard to signing players (65% of Premier League signings in January were not English) versus developing them.

3) Talented English youngsters are not playing enough football and the football they are playing is probably not the right kind. Teenagers at Brazilian clubs are practising, mostly on basic technique and conditioning, for 20 hours a week. On the continent, they get 10-12 hours. Our brightest prospects are getting five hours.

4) There is no scientific or social reason why English kids, with the right coaching and sufficient time, cannot be as good as kids from anywhere else. In fact, with the levels of interest, expertise and wealth here, they could be better.

So with that last point in mind here is my very short manifesto for saving English football from becoming English tennis.

1) Implement Uefa’s quotas for home-grown players. If Boro can field a team that has 15 of the 16 players from their own academy (as they did against Fulham at the end of last season) surely the others can field teams that have four of 25 (as Uefa has demanded and the Premier League has ignored). I know it is unrealistic to expect to see another team of local lads win the Champions League (as Celtic did in 1967) but it would be nice if at least one or two of them were more than just short-term contractors at the company.

2) Reduce the academies’ catchment areas. They can currently take under-14s from within a 60-minute travel time radius and older kids from within 90 minutes. Clifford wants to reduce that to 10 minutes. I think he has a point. Access to the players is a huge issue, and our climate, clogged roads and school timetable don’t help. But let’s work around that. Let’s get the kids into their LOCAL club before school. Or perhaps let them have their PE lessons there. Clifford has told Leeds chairman Ken Bates to forget recruiting academy kids in Liverpool and Newcastle. He thinks he could field a Leeds United side of locals in just 10 years. It won’t happen but it wouldn’t be any worse than what they have now and it would be considerably cheaper.

3) Stop competitive 11-a-side games for the youngest players. Most academies spend two thirds of their five-hour allotment with the kids on preparing for the upcoming weekend’s game. That leaves just one third of the time for work on technique, the very building blocks of young player’s career. Less focus on competition, with smaller games and more touches is the way forward. Who cares if their teams under-12s are top of the table if your under-18s can’t trap a ball?

I could go on (to more dangerously communist territory like salary caps) but I won’t.

What I will say is that I am fed up of waiting for England to win an international tournament and I am not convinced that the mega-bucks world league that is the Premiership is going to help that.

Setting goals

Courtesy of Kids First Soccer

Information presented here is based on the discussion by Gould, D. (1998). Goal setting for peak performance. In J.M. Williams (Ed.) Applied sport psychology: Personal growth to peak performance (3rd ed.)

ELEMENTS THAT MAKE EFFECTIVE GOALS

a pre-determined level of proficiency on a specific motor skill or fitness component(s)
specific time frame or deadline to reach goal
plan of action to achieve goal
baseline and deadline performance measurement procedures

McClements (1982) provides the following specific distinction between types of goals:

SUBJECTIVE GOALS : perform better or improve, try very hard, create and run interesting practices (goal for coach), be liked and appreciated, be happy…have fun…(note that the subjective goals listed here are very hard if not impossible to quantify and thus measure)

GENERAL OBJECTIVE GOALS: making friends, becoming popular among peers, making the team, improving win/loss record, making it to the finals, winning a tournament…etc. (note that the general objective goals listed here are very hard to control since its main concerns are outcomes rather than processes)

SPECIFIC OBJECTIVE GOALS:
increasing the percentage of first possessions, decrease the number of throw-in foot errors (this is the negative version of “increase the percentage on correct throw-ins”), increase the number of times a player simply makes contact with the ball in soccer… (note that specific objective goals are simpler to evaluate and allow better control by the individual)

Similarly, Martens, Christina, Harvey and Sharkey (1981) contrasted outcome and performance goals.

OUTCOME GOALS: highlight the final result as it is contrasted with another person’s achievement

PERFORMANCE GOALS: The focus is on the process by which a result was achieved. Each most recent performance is contrasted with earlier efforts by same individual.

The distinction between the different types of goals is very crucial since the available empirical evidence has consistently demonstrated that specific objective goals, combined with performance goals, are the most efficient facilitators of behaviour modification and/or change.

GOAL-SETTING GUIDELINES

The use of goals clearly outperforms a “play as you go” no goals approach. Still, bare in mind that not all goal-setting approaches are equally effective. Following is a summary of successful goal-setting procedures:

  • identify and record team and personal goals; outline a strategy for reaching the agreed upon set of goals
  • state goals using easy to measure motor skills or fitness components (i.e., state your goals in performance rather than outcome terms)
  • maintain the delicate balance between challenging yet attainable goals; be prepared to modify team and/or individual athlete goals to keep the balance
  • break long-term goals into several short-and intermediate term goals and apply a corresponding time frame and target dates to each goal
  • have specific goals for soccer practices, practice games, and regular season games (the goal in pre-season games may be to experiment with a variety of offensive and defensive formations, during a regular game the goal may shift to implementation and proper execution of a specific game plan…
  • use positive language when stating your goals (emphasis is on “what to do” as opposed to “what not to do.” For example, “Listen to and follow the referee’s instructions” versus “Do not argue with the referee.”
  • set special times for the development and evaluation of your goals
  • provide continuous performance feedback and positive reinforcement

Based on Botterill’s (1983) discussion, Gould (1986) proposed the following three- phase goal-setting system: (The following would be a lot to ask or expect of the coach to be achieved in a typical 10 week little league soccer season. The child’s parents can help by interviewing their child and submitting to the coach their and their child’s goals for the season. The head coach may now have something to work with. He/she may “collapse” all similar goals by team members and assign specific areas of practice to her/his assistants or parent volunteers).

THE PLANNING PHASE

Get in touch with your personal coaching philosophy (sincere goals are easier to stick to and thus you may avoid confusion on the team)

Identify individual and team needs (separate the kids that distract each other, allow the kids to be kids, allow for socialization time, provide “custom made” emotional support to team members, provide active fitness and on task skills opportunities, create environments in which team members would have a good chance to succeed [e.g., score goals during practice games,] in areas that otherwise would be an almost impossible task in a regular season match…)

Based on identified team and individual needs facilitate a goals discussion with players and parents (consider the feasibility of your planned goals)

Identify and implement strategies to achieve team and individual player goals

THE MEETING PHASE

Present your ideas to parents and kids in a team meeting (provide parents with a “work sheet” with some leading questions that they could hand back to you with their and their child’s ideas and comments, e.g., “What do you like most about soccer practices? Games? What do you like ).

Plan a follow-up meeting in which parent and child are asked to reflect upon their personal and team expectations and goals (make sure you clarify with your parents and children their priorities, specific needs, and realistic expectations)

Discuss team and individual goals throughout the season with parents and individual players (You may consider developing goals of practice between official practice days.

On our 9-10 year-old boys’ soccer team we assign ball control (e.g., kicking against wall, throw-ins to wall, juggling, wall kicking, dribbling, etc…) drills to the kids. The less experienced and skilled child would greatly benefit from adult supervision and specific feedback since “Practice alone does not necessarily result in proper learning. Well planned and executed practice does.”

THE FOLLOW-UP/EVALUATION PHASE

Collect an accurate “snape shot” of pre-and early season initial motor skills (Some of the available soccer skills tests include but are not limited to the Shuttle Run Test, the Dribbling Test, The Wall Kick Skills Test, the Punting Test the Passing/Trapping Test, the Target Shooting Test, the Juggling Test and more…). Diagrams and test procedures are now available at the above links.

Create methodical systems of providing feedback. Avoid using phrases such as “You missed…” or “Kick the ball to the corner of the goal…” or “When passing to a team-mate send a ground ball…” and stop at that. Instead tell and demonstrate to the child how to more effectively place her/his balancing foot, where should the balancing foot’s toe point to. Show the child how to properly drive the ball using the the kicking foot by pointing out where to contact the ball…Most kids see better than adults, and they know the ball went out, over, or too much to the left. That was quite obvious. They need us to tell them why it happened and what can they do to correct their actions.

Create team and individual evaluation charts. You may assign a motivated team parent to chart their child’s (or any child’s) field movements and contacts with the ball (prepare several field charts with the child’s name and the five minute observation interval (e.g., 00-5:00; 5:00-10:00; etc.). Chart movement without ball using a broken line, for contact with ball put down a number, e.g., #1, 2, 3, etc.,) where contact took place, draw uninterrupted line to describe passes and shots.

COMMON PROBLEMS IN SETTING GOALS

  • Setting too many goals too soon. You may jolt down as many goals as you wish. Just be sure to prioretise goals and work plans.
  • Stating most goals in general subjective terms. Be as specific and as precise as you can be when stating your goals.
  • Not appreciating individual differences. Some kids just can’t apply themselves as others to the team’s goals. What may seem as their 70% may in fact represent their 100% at this point in time. Kids grow and mature at a different pace. Some are where you’d like them to be at when you first meet them, and some will perform for the coach two seasons away. Kids may experience different learning curves, and may have a variety of preferences for lead-up games, drills, and feedback remarks. What may seem challenging to the coach and some kids on the team may appear as boring to others. So do not take it personally, for example, when a seven-year-old does not like your hard labored, wonderfully crafted practice plan…
  • Holding on too long to unrealistic goals. Let go and move on.
  • Omitting “performance Goals.” (e.g., “Team will execute three [or as many as you think is appropriate given your current level of team play] sets of three or more consecutive passes during a match by the fifth regular season game.”
  • Putting exessive emphasis on technique-related goals. (Behaviors that relate to sportsmanship, punctuality, hard work/effort, help with setting equipment, being supportive of teammates when they commit a mistake…etc…are just as important as proper trapping or passing to the child’s overall learning experience.
  • Not appreciating the time commitment needed to implement a proper goal-setting program. (Take the time to measure and discuss baseline performance, and set time aside for reevaluation and charting of progress.)
  • Not fostering a supportive goal-setting environment. (Create charts with baseline and consecutive evaluation interval results)

SUMMARY

“GOALS ARE EFFECTIVE BECAUSE THEY INFLUENCE PSYCHOLOGICAL STATES SUCH AS SELF-CONFIDENCE, DIRECT ATTENTION TO IMPORTANT ASPECTS OF THE TASK, MOBILIZE EFFORT, INCREASE PERSISTENCE AND FOSTER THE DEVELOPMENT OF NEW LEARNING STRATEGIES (Gould, 1993, p. 168).”

“IN ESSENCE, GOAL SETTING INVOLVES COMMITMENT AND EFFORT ON THE PART OF THE COACHES AS WELL AS ATHLETES (Gould, 1993, p. 164).”

It’s playtime!

Taking the drilling and screaming out of youth football (soccer) will make the game more enjoyable and create better players.

By Mike Woitalla, Soccer America Magazine.

Let’s take the approach so many adults bring to youth soccer to other children’s activities.

Take a bunch of 6-year-olds to the playground, but don’t let them scamper off to explore the different structures. Make them all line up and wait patiently to take turns on the monkey bars. If one of them wanders off toward the swings, scream at him.

Be sure to tell them exactly how they should climb. Yell at the slow ones to go faster. While they’re hanging from a bar, shout at them to ”grab the next bar!”

At the sandbox, don’t just let them start digging around willy-nilly. No building mounds or castles until we teach them the proper way to hold the shovel. Line them up for the shovel drill and don’t forget to yell, ”Dig, dig, dig!”

After 50 minutes of instructions on the various aspects of proper playground usage, give the kids 10 minutes to play.

Sounds ludicrous, doesn’t it? So do these scenarios, but they’re real and all too common:

A 9-year-old dribbles downfield and comes to a screeching halt because his coach doesn’t let defenders past the halfway line.

In an 8 v 8 game of 7-year-olds, two players on each team are forced by their coach to remain planted in front of their own goal. Wouldn’t want to be vulnerable to a counterattack, would we?

A 6-year-old girl who started playing soccer a couple weeks earlier dribbles the ball toward the goal while her coach moves along the sideline screaming, ”Kick it into the goal! Kick it hard! Kick it into the goal! Kick it hard!”

And I’m wondering what it would be like to have someone four times as big as I am hollering at me while I try to perform a skill that is barely within my capabilities.

One of my favourites is the ”Spread out!” scream. I hear this from coaches, directed at 6-year-olds. Apparently they haven’t noticed that these kids can barely kick the ball more than five yards, so it’s a bit unlikely that they’ll be able to exploit the flanks and whip in a cross.

Perhaps the most puzzling aspect of youth soccer is the insistence on making young players do drills instead of just letting them play small-sided games, the way Pele, Diego Maradona and Ronaldo did when they were young.

In America, children start playing organized soccer three or four years before those guys did. That’s the way it is, because in today’s world they usually can’t just go outside and play pickup soccer for hours on end. But that doesn’t mean they should have to show up at a practice and be instructed as if they haven’t left the classroom.

Besides the fact that, after obeying adults all day at school while planted in a chair, children deserve and need playtime without overbearing adult interference, children learn soccer from playing and mimicking others, not from instructions.

The Brazilian and Argentine players who delight us so much developed their skills playing without adults looking over their shoulders stifling their creative impulses and critiquing their ”mistakes.”

Said Juergen Klinsmann recently about the decline of German talent: ”Today all the youth soccer is played in organized tournaments, we don’t have kids playing in the streets any more. But it’s in street soccer where the real talent appears.”

So it would make sense for coaches to replicate the kind of soccer the Ronaldinhos of the world played when they were under 10. But there are youth coaches – lots and lots, I fear – who feel they’re being generous if they devote a third of their practice to scrimmaging. I imagine a 6-year-old Maradona would have quit the sport if his introduction to it entailed doing the drills we make our kids do instead of letting him run around trying to score.

Of all the hundreds of successful American and international players I have interviewed or researched, they have had in common the fact that they played soccer as much as they could outside of their organized leagues – in their backyard, in their house, at the local park. They did so because they had fallen in love with the game.

The chances that children will develop a passion for the game are much greater if they have a good time playing it. And I can’t imagine anyone with a soccer background will disagree that the most fun part of soccer is playing a game, with goals to score on.

And when children play mini-games they should be allowed to play as they please – explore the game and not be talked to constantly by the coach.

Above all, young children shouldn’t be discouraged from dribbling.

Expecting an under-8 team to develop a passing game is like forcing little kids to figure out Rubik’s Cube instead of letting them play with Legos.

Young kids can comprehend the concept of dribbling and they like to do it.

So they should be encouraged. After all, a look at higher levels of the game reveals what a precious skill dribbling is. We have far more good passers than good dribblers. Moreover, dribbling develops ball skills that will help players become good passers.

Fortunately, the U.S. Soccer Federation is trying to send the message to youth coaches that ”the game is the best teacher,” a favorite phrase of Manfred Schellscheidt, who contributed to U.S. Soccer’s ”Player Development Guidelines: Best Practices for Coaching Soccer in the United States.”

Schellscheidt, the head of U.S. Soccer’s U-14 boys development program, has won national titles at the pro, amateur and youth levels. Richie Williams, who played on Schellscheidt’s two McGuire Cup-winning teams before winning college and MLS titles, described Schellscheidt’s practices: ”Our training sessions were basically just playing.”

A key part of ”Guidelines” are recommendations for team sizes and goalkeeper-use at particular levels, and which rules to apply or not apply – for example, 3 v 3 games without keepers for children under-8.

”Guidelines” encourages coaches to create practice sessions that simulate pickup games, to organize less, to say less, to allow players to do more, to encourage the dribbler …

One hopes that ”Guidelines” will have an impact on the well-intentioned adults who run our youth leagues but sometimes forget that soccer for young children is playtime.

(This article originally appeared in the February 2006 issue of Soccer America Magazine.)

Push too hard, too young…

Intense training schedules. Pressure to win and be the best. Painful injuries.

Given all these factors, it’s not surprising that some athletes simply burn out on their sport. But what is shocking to many in the field are the young ages at which this is increasingly happening — sometimes as early as 9 or 10.

The scenario often goes something like this: Eager to nurture the next A-Rod or Michelle Kwan, parents enroll their 5- or 6-year-olds in a competitive sports league or program. Over the next few years, training intensifies and expands to the off-season, making practice essentially year-round. Youngsters may join more than one league or a traveling team. They may have to sacrifice other interests and give up most of the down time that allows them to just be kids.

Soon the stakes get higher because many parents and coaches play to win. Winning means recognition and that could lead to lucrative opportunities -– high school championships then college scholarships and perhaps a shot at the pros.

“Kids sports have become much more competitive,” says Dr. Jordan Metzl, medical director of the Sports Medicine Institute for Young Athletes at the Hospital for Special Surgery in New York City.

“And in general, high-level competition for young kids is not a great thing,” says Metzl, co-author of “The Young Athlete: A Sports Doctor’s Complete Guide for Parents.”

With more kids than ever in organized sports, an estimated 30 million of them up through high school, Metzl and other experts in sports medicine and youth athletics say they are increasingly concerned about the pressures put on some children to excel. Not only are these youngsters at risk for emotional burnout, they may also develop injuries that plague them for a lifetime. Some will turn to steroids or other performance-enhancing substances to try to gain an edge. And some may give up on sports -– and exercise — altogether.

‘It’s not fun anymore’
Kids with a strong internal drive may thrive on the competition. But the pressure can be too much for others, particularly grade-schoolers who aren’t as equipped to deal with the stress as older athletes.

And the goals of sports for young kids can differ dramatically from those of their parents and coaches, says youth fitness researcher Avery Faigenbaum, an associate professor of exercise science at the University of Massachusetts in Boston.

“Most children would rather play on a losing team than sit on the bench of a winning team,” he says.

When Faigenbaum asks kids who’ve quit why they’re no longer interested in sports, their typical response: “It’s not fun anymore.” They wanted to have a good time, make friends and learn something new, he says. But make the game all about hard-core training and the final score, and many kids will sideline themselves.

“They’re getting turned off of sports at a young age -– and that’s a sad tale,” says Faigenbaum.

There’s ample evidence that sports participation can have important benefits for kids, including improved physical health and emotional well-being. Hopefully, they’ll also learn life lessons in teamwork, discipline, leadership and time management. But kids can’t profit from these benefits if they’re quitting sports early on.

A new ball game
While parents may have spent much of their early childhoods riding bikes around the neighborhood, playing pick-up games of baseball or basketball with the local kids and maybe joining Little League, today’s youngsters often fall into two disparate groups: those who sit inside playing video games and those who participate in organized competitive sports like soccer, ice hockey and basketball.

A big difference today is that kids involved in sports play harder and younger than ever, says Steve Marshall, an assistant professor of epidemiology and orthopedics at the Injury Prevention Research Center at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. And with dreams of college scholarships and multi-million dollar professional contracts, the competition can get out of hand, he says.