Emotional abuse of youth players is more common than we realize

This is a complex topic, and one I believe we as coaches, parents, officials, and players don’t talk enough about. During my many years of officiating, coaching, and observing youth soccer across pretty much all levels of play, age groups, and both genders, I have unfortunately observed too many situations where boys and girls appear to be subjected to persistent negativity and emotional abuse by coaches and also parents.

For example, during a U17 girls game that I was officiating the coach for one of the teams kept putting his key midfielder down throughout the game. She was arguably the best player on the team, battling hard, and a team player, yet the coach kept blaming her. She was clearly emotionally affected by this.

At an opportune moment during the game I spoke some encouraging words to her, but I wish I could have done more, including talking to her parents. The challenge is that these situations are tricky. Accusing someone of abuse, even just speculatively, is quite the charge and I only had this one game to go on and no other context.

Unfortunately, coaches and parents too often don’t appreciate how quickly negative coaching can destroy a player, take away the excitement of playing a sport, and how destructive persistent emotional abuse can be for a child (and any person of any age for that matter). The effects often don’t show themselves immediately (which makes it more difficult to recognize cause and effect), but they can last a lifetime and manifest themselves in the form of mental and physical health issues.

Coaches and parents submitting the boys and girls to emotional abuse aren’t necessarily intentionally doing it or even aware of it – they often don’t realize that they are doing it because they are struggling with their own demons. Unfortunately, kids are an easy and vulnerable escape valve for those demons.

Parents, tolerating a negative coaching environment is equivalent to tolerating an activity that keeps given your son or daughter physical pain. The mental bruising from the former is far more damaging because it persists, deepens, and damages the core of who your son or daughter is and growing up to be.

Imagine your son or daughter returning home from a daily activity that gives them bruises all over their bodies, every single day. You’d never subject your child to this nor would you accept emotional abuse from a teacher at school.

So why should sports be any different? Probably because of some perverted view that this “toughens ’em up so they can cope better with life.” Exactly the opposite!

The Positive Coaching Alliance has been working for twenty years to improve this aspect of youth sports, but it starts with us parents. We need to know what to look for and proactively identify coaching environments that are negative and emotionally abusive and remove our boys and girls from that environment, and possibly call out the coach for his/her behavior. Some parents also need to take a hard look at their own behavior.

On February 14, 2018, a new law went into effect, S.534, the “Protecting Young Victims from Sexual Abuse and SafeSport Authorization Act of 2017”, which established the U.S. Center for Safesport and published a parent toolkit to educate parents about the various forms of abuse in sports. U.S. Soccer also launched its Safe Soccer initiative and a Safe Soccer Framework.

To take a closer look at what emotional abuse in a youth sports context can look like, I’m including here some key passages from the above referenced toolkit:

Child abuse is a complex issue. The term may evoke a strong emotional response and can create confusion as people try to agree on what is and is not abuse. Child abuse includes many forms, including physical, sexual and emotional harm.

The complexity is caused in part because individual families and communities have many different values about how to treat children. Further, child abuse is defined differently by the criminal justice system, the civil court system, and clinicians.

The clinical standard is the one of primary importance to this discussion, and it simply is ‘does a child feel as if they have been abused?’ Many acts rise neither to the level of civil nor criminal charges, but leave a child feeling awful.

Sharp observation by parents and coaches, and open communication between parents and children, can help identify when language or behavior has crossed a painful boundary for a specific child, and swift, compassionate intervention is called for.

Emotional abuse, also known as psychological maltreatment, is considered the most common type of maltreatment, but the least reported.

Psychological maltreatment is defined as “a repeated pattern or incident(s)…that thwart the child’s basic psychological needs…and convey that a child is worthless, defective, or damaged goods [whose value is] primarily…meeting another’s needs.”

Victims of emotional abuse are left to feel expendable, which is the exact opposite of the message a child needs to develop healthy self-esteem.

Forms of emotional abuse may include verbal acts, non-contact physical acts, and acts that deny attention or support. The following list describes major categories of emotional abuse, and examples of how they might play out in youth sports:

Verbal

  • Use of degrading or shaming nicknames
  • Repeatedly telling a child they are not good enough to be on the team
  • Repeatedly mocking a child for poor performance
  • Repeatedly calling out a child for their differences (e.g. race, ethnicity, disability)
  • Threats of frightening and inappropriate repercussions from a coach

Acts That Deny Attention & Support

  • Acts or words that reject and degrade a child
  • Consistently excluding a child from playing time, even in practice
  • Singling out a child to consistently have the least favorable position or assignment
  • Consistently having the same child sit alone
  • Consistently giving a child a job or chore that removes them from the rest of the team

An isolated incident of inappropriate behavior may occur when an adult is under stress and makes a reactive comment. Some parents become uncomfortable reading these definitions for the first time, remembering that they may have behaved or spoken like this to their child on occasion. A healthy adult recognizes their mistakes and offers the child a sincere apology. A key factor in the definition of emotional abuse is the ongoing and repeated exposure to these painful and negative behaviors.

The good news is that the negative effects of emotional abuse can be buffered by the ongoing support from a nurturing loving parent or caretaker, but a parent must become aware of the abuse to help.

Please, parents, take a closer look at the coaching environment your son or daughter is subjected to. There is no place for emotional abuse – ever. Even persistent negativity has a lasting mental health effect.

Pull your child out of that environment immediately and share your concerns with other parents to help them make informed decisions about their children too.

The first English soccer player dies of CTE. Kevin Moore was in his 40s when he showed signs of brain disease.

Mandy Moore still winces as she recalls how it often was for her late husband, Kevin, after so many of his 623 matches as a professional footballer. “He had stitches and scars around his eyes,” she recalls. “There were times when he could not even remember parts of a match after taking a kick or an elbow in the head.”

His friend and former team-mate Iain Dowie says that they would stay behind to practise heading. “Maybe 100 balls a day,” says Dowie.

And then there were the shuddering match incidents. “I don’t know how many times Kev – God bless him – got concussed,” says Dowie. “But I remember an incident as the ball dropped in the box. Kev slipped and the lad was about to smash it in. Kev put his head between the ball and him. The lad kicked his head and [the ball] went for a corner.”

Moore was 39 when he retired in 1996 after a 20-year career. This was not an elderly player struck down with a devastating form of dementia, but a defender from the Premier League era who had been a Southampton team-mate of Alan Shearer and Matthew Le Tissier.

He is the first known Premier League player to have died of dementia and was only in his mid-40s when his family noticed changes.

He unexpectedly lost his job as Fulham’s safety officer and training ground manager. He became forgetful, unsteady on his feet and had minor car accidents. He started making rash decisions.

A diagnosis of Pick’s Disease – a rare form of dementia affecting the front of the brain – was made in 2007 and his decline would be cruelly rapid.

For his daughter, Sophie, a gap of 10 months between visits when she was living in Australia was startling. “I was left shocked,” she says. “I felt like I didn’t recognise him as my dad.”

Moore eventually needed full-time care and died in April 2013 on what was both his wedding anniversary and 55th birthday.

“My abiding memory was him scoring at Wembley in the Zenith Data Systems final in 1992,” says Le Tissier. “It was the only time I’ve seen a guy head the ball downwards into the top corner.”

Although former England striker Jeff Astle died in 2002 from brain disease that both a coroner and neuropathologist attributed to playing football, the link was not then being widely made.

There was a sad irony in that Moore had been sufficiently concerned while he was still playing to have discussed it with Dowie and a doctor. They raised the issue with Gordon Taylor, the chief executive of the Professional Footballers’ Association.

Mandy Moore also wrote to Taylor following Kevin’s diagnosis and received a reply. There were no words of sympathy and, even though she says there had been no request to cover care costs, the letter stated that the organisation would be bankrupt within a year if it paid care home fees for members. Taylor estimated in the letter, written in 2008, that 1,000 of his members required such care and that the annual bill would be about £15 million.

The Moore family were taken aback by the letter’s tone and, while grateful for the wider help Kevin received from the PFA, felt a huge difference in how they were supported by the Royal Institute of Chartered Surveyors, where Moore was also a member.

Dementia caused by head trauma has since been identified as chronic traumatic encephalopathy and, while definitive diagnosis can be made only by examining the brain after death, Moore’s symptoms were consistent with the disease. “This is not about banning football or heading but getting research done so that players know where they stand and risks are mitigated,” says Mandy.

Dowie agrees. “I feel sure football did play a part – there is no doubt in my mind,” he says.

The pitfalls of chasing the elite player dream

 

Soccer success is about skill according to new university research

This comes as no surprise to many of you that already ‘get this’ intuitively from having played and watched this beautiful game your entire life. And you’ll also understand why I used the above image for this blog post.

Without an appreciation of and commitment to the artistry of soccer we won’t be able to credibly compete at the international level and the growth of soccer here will stall.

Some day the majority of coaches, players, and parents in our country will hold this truth to be self-evident. We still have some way to go, unfortunately, but we have to keep chipping away at this folks. Keep the faith!

The peer-reviewed study, conducted by researchers from Australia and the U.S. in collaboration with elite soccer academies in Brazil, was published last week in Proceedings of the Royal Society of London.

This new study used analytic techniques developed in evolutionary biology to determine the impact of a player’s skill, athletic ability, and balance on their success during a game.

The researchers found it was their skill — not speed, strength, or fitness — that was the most important factor.

“Higher skill allows players to have a greater impact on the game”, Professor Wilson said.

“Accurate passing and greater ball control are more important for success than high speed, strength and fitness.

“It may be obvious to soccer fans and coaches that players like Lionel Messi and Neymar are the best due to their skill.

“However, 90 per cent of research on soccer players is based on how to improve their speed, strength, and agility — not their skill.”

Professor Wilson is collaborating with elite soccer academies in Brazil, where he is testing new protocols for skill development in junior players.

“Our research shows that skill is fundamental to player success in soccer,” he said.

“Skill is complex and multidimensional — and we need to measure all aspects of it — with the next step to work out how to improve these aspects in developing players.

“Brazilian football academies understand the importance of developing skill in young players, which gives us a great opportunity to test our ideas and find new ways to improve youth training.

“Professor Wilson hopes to bring his knowledge back to Australia to improve the nation’s international standing and World Cup potential.

“Australia will only become a successful footballing nation if we innovate rather than replicate,” he said.

“There are kids with an incredible amount of skill who aren’t being selected for teams and training programs because they can’t run as fast at nine, 10, or 11 years old.

“These kids need to be given a chance and the science of skill is on their side.”

Brain injury from heading the ball – growing evidence from England

U.S. Men’s Soccer: What Happened?

I’m sharing the full text of an excellent Oct 11 Wall Street Journal article on the state of U.S. Soccer following elimination from the Word Cup. Here goes:

“A failure of imagination and player development ultimately cost the Americans a spot in next summer’s World Cup.”

And now comes the reckoning for U.S. men’s soccer.

A day after a decade’s worth of mistakes came home to roost, the U.S. federation now needs to clean up a program that for too long clung to aging talent and false hopes.

Or at least that’s what is supposed to happen after the debacle of Tuesday night, when in the space of 90 minutes, on a soggy field in a sleepy stadium in Trinidad, the Americans lost to a last-place team with nothing to play for and were denied a spot in the 2018 World Cup.

Whether the U.S. has the resolve to confront its problems, however, remains unclear. Tuesday’s defeat illuminated all of the deeply entrenched issues that close-watchers of the team have long complained about.

There was the failure of player development that left the team relying on a core of 30-somethings left over from two World Cup cycles ago.

There was the failure of imagination that caused the team to return, in the middle of qualifying, to a manager, Bruce Arena, it had fired a decade before.

And finally, there was the tactical naiveté that caused that manager to misjudge bottom-of-the-group Trinidad and Tobago and send Team USA out with an unsuitable plan and vulnerable in the most obvious places on the field.

“It was all there for us. We have nobody to blame but ourselves,’ said captain Michael Bradley, who, at 30 years old, is unlikely to get another chance in the world’s most popular sporting event.

In any other soccer country, the protocol now would be clear. The first order of business is firing the manager. The president of the federation occasionally resigns too, just as the Italian coach and federation president did in a wild news conference after the Azzurri’s exit from the 2014 World Cup.

Then, the federation orders a review of its development practices from the ground up. England, for instance, likes to call this “root and branch reform.” A parliamentary inquiry might even be in order.

It has yet to work for England, but versions of that thinking have paid off elsewhere. After the twin disasters of the 1998 World Cup (knocked out by Croatia) and Euro 2000 (eliminated in the group stage), Germany redrew its entire youth soccer structure, invested massively in facilities, and realized that a primary failure was in educating youth coaches. This wasn’t a quick fix. But in 2014, with a generation of talent grown in the new model, it won the World Cup.

How U.S. Soccer got here is a long tale of a broken system.

At the grass-roots, good young players are treated vastly differently in this country than virtually anywhere else in the developed world.

Everywhere else, a young player with promise joins a local club and is trained and cultivated throughout childhood by the club itself. In the U.S. a good young player joins a travel team and his parents are told to foot the bill for coaching, travel, uniforms, equipment and any additional training.

“We have to get to point in the U.S. where, when you are a good young player interested in the game, the first thing you get handed isn’t an invoice for several thousand dollars,” U.S. Soccer president Sunil Gulati said two years ago.

The U.S. Soccer Federation invests millions of dollars each year to increase participation and train coaches, and Major League Soccer’s franchises have in recent years begun to open youth academies. But those efforts are a pittance compared with what happens in so many countries, where local athletic clubs view raising the next generation of players as both a civic responsibility and an investment, because one of them just might turn out to be the next Lionel Messi.

The U.S. has failed to cultivate even a couple of true international stars over the years—something that probably should have happened almost by accident given the size and wealth of the U.S. It’s been 40 years since Pele landed in New York and jump-started the soccer boom.

When Jurgen Klinsmann took over the national team in 2011, his scouts began combing rosters, especially in Europe, for players who might be eligible for an American passport and a spot on the U.S. national team.

Klinsmann’s teams relied heavily on German-Americans, players who were often the children of former American servicemen who had spent time in Germany. One third of his starting lineups were reliably German, with players like Jermaine Jones, Fabian Johnson, Danny Williams and John Brooks, none of whom were in the lineup Tuesday. He left Landon Donovan, arguably the best player the U.S. has ever produced, off the U.S. roster for the 2014 World Cup in favor of the unproven 18-year-old Julian Green.

Klinsmann urged every player to flee the U.S. and try to break into the top or even second-tier leagues in Europe, where the quality of play is far more challenging than in MLS. U.S. players, many of whom had spent their late teens and early 20s playing collegiate soccer, would only improve if they faced better competition, he preached.

Just as Klinsmann was pushing for U.S. players to fight for roster spots in Europe, however, MLS teams generated enough money to sign the top U.S. players to lucrative contracts.

Clint Dempsey returned to play for Seattle. Michael Bradley and Jozy Altidore returned to play for Toronto. Alejandro Bedoya left France for Philadelphia. Matt Besler eschewed opportunities in Europe for a rich deal in Kansas City. Striker Jordan Morris blew off Germany for Seattle.

Few of these players have improved since 2014. And they don’t face the weekly challenges that 19-year-old Christian Pulisic and striker Bobby Wood face in Germany, and defenders Geoff Cameron and DeAndre Yedlin confront in England.

After five years, Klinsmann’s criticism of the U.S. players wore thin, and the bulk of the team began to tune him out, leading to a series of poor results that culminated in several losses to open the final qualifying tournament.

“I had no problem with Jurgen challenging Americans to be better,” said Alexi Lalas, the former U.S. international who is now an analyst for Fox Sports. “But it began to feel more personal. Combine that with his results and that is where the problems came.”

When Arena was brought back in November, he seemed like the perfect antidote—a prideful veteran of U.S. soccer, who believed strongly in the value of MLS, having won its championship five times. But Arena’s conservative approach made the Americans vulnerable, especially on the road when Concacaf opponents felt emboldened to attack.

Goalkeeper Tim Howard, 38, looked every bit his age, getting beat from the flank 40 yards out on Tuesday’s winning goal.

Now, there are no quick fixes, and the U.S. will likely spend the next year and a half completely turning over its roster. They have to hope their next generation that is trying to break through in Europe continues to improve. These are players like 21-year-old Emerson Hyndman of Bournemouth, 22-year-old Matt Miazga of Vitesse in the Netherlands (on loan from Chelsea), and 19-year-old Cameron Carter-Vickers of Sheffield (on loan from Tottenham).

“It’s not going away anytime soon,” Bradley said of the disappointment of this year’s failure. “It’s not something you just forget.”

Thank you Matthew Futterman (matthew.futterman@wsj.com) and Joshua Robinson (joshua.robinson@wsj.com) for the research and writing.

Disgraceful – time to cut the BS!

This is my first post in many months – I’ve simply been too busy at work and with family. But Tuesday night’s US MNT elimination from the World Cup jolted me into posting again.

I have not felt this angry in a while. This is a national disgrace, an international embarrassment.

Let me be very blunt: what a joke of a team and coaches. USSF lacks leadership that understands this beautiful game deeply enough. The quality of soccer in the MLS is poor and the incentives in that league are not aligned with developing players to compete internationally. And don’t get me started on college soccer.

Time to stop the BS and start with a complete and deep revamp of how we teach, play, and organize the beautiful game here.

We need to hold our coaches more accountable and support only those that truly understand the game and how to teach it. This also means that we as parents and the leaders of our youth clubs educate ourselves about what it means to learn and play futbol properly.

In contrast to pretty much all soccer powerhouses such as Brazil and Germany and Spain, we’re paying our coaches and clubs a lot of money, right? So if we have a pay-to-play model here let’s at least demand a service that can justify these cost.

This applies to all levels of coaching – national, pro, college, and youth. And it applies to US Soccer leadership as well as us parents.

If you’ve been following my blog for a while then you know that this doesn’t come as too big a surprise to me, but I still feel angry about it.

We have inmates running the asylum and it needs to stop.

In contrast, tiny Iceland (pop 335,000) qualified for the World Cup yesterday in first place (!) in its European (!) qualifying group. And remember their recent remarkable European Championship performance?

That’s a country only about one-third the population of the City of San Jose here in NorCal.

Let’s do that again: 335 thousand people with limited resources on an icy island in the Atlantic ocean near Europe perform better than 335 million people living in the wealthiest country in the world with unbelievable facilities and resources and brainpower and a deep and pervasive tradition of sports.

When will there be enough evidence to finally trigger deep changes in how we train and play this beautiful game in our country? Have we finally reached a tipping point?

I’ll leave you with these three clips to reflect on:

#ussoccer #soccer #futbol #usmnt #mls #ussf

Playing to win felt great! And that’s the problem.

I coached my youngest daughter’s U11 futsal team this winter, which ended with the U.S. Futsal Northwest Regionals in San Jose a couple of weeks ago. They ended up second.

During the season we emphasized learning to play the game ‘right’, which includes ball control, skills, and playing out from the back. The emphasis was on ‘player development’, which doesn’t pay off until years later.

We played the same way during the tournament, including playing out from the back and using dribbling and/or passing to work the ball into the final third.

We won against all teams this winter (partly because their players were relatively weak) apart from one aggressive team with stronger players that didn’t give my girls any time on the ball, including when we were trying to work the ball out from the back.

These opposing girls were clearly the best opponents we had faced all winter – their futsal club had ‘recruited’ very good players from various outdoor clubs in places like Santa Rosa and the Greater Sacramento area.

So we lost the ball a lot near our goal and then all the opponents had to do was take lots of shots on goal.

They had a couple of skillful players that did some nice things, but overall this was aggression and intensity overcoming players that are still learning to control the ball at age 10/11.

The score during our group game was 5:13 against us, and it could have been worse.

Turns out both teams ended up in the Final so we played them again.

To give my team a chance to win I decided to change our tactics.

Instead of playing out from the back I told the girls to kick that ball up the field and then pressure the other team in their half.

I also kept one girl deep in the other team’s half. I instructed my girls to kick that ball up the field in the general direction of our lone forward and then run after it to pressure the other team in their own half.

This worked wonders. The other team lead 3:2 with five minutes to go, but the score should have been 3:2 in our favor if it wasn’t for two refereeing mistakes. And we had a couple more great chances but couldn’t finish.

To be clear, I’m not complaining about the referees and neither I nor the players or parents protested during or after the game.

The only reason I’m bringing this up is to point out how evenly matched the teams suddenly were.

We went from a completely one-sided 5:13 to a de-facto 3:2 by changing our tactics dramatically.

The game was very exciting and everyone was happy despite the loss. The overall feeling was that the girls battled hard and could have won the Final. And also nice to avoid a repeat of the earlier drubbing.

It felt great!

Now here’s the key issue:

My only objective was to win that Final. The tactical changes and the player instructions had only one goal in mind: to win. There was zero player development.

The quality of soccer was poor. No team controlled the ball for more than a few seconds and it was mostly hustle and long balls to avoid pressure.

Now imagine you’re a coach of one of our outdoor club teams. You’re playing in leagues and tourneys with relatively evenly matched opponents and often stronger teams.

In contrast, recall that our futsal opponents this winter were significantly weaker than us. So it was easy to play the ‘right’ way….even if we lost the ball playing out from the back the odds of the opponent scoring a goal was relatively low.

For the mathematically inclined: the probability weighted ‘cost’ of playing the ‘right’ way (in terms of losing games) was low compared to the gains.

The vast majority of coaches feel the pressure to win games, leagues and tournaments to keep players and their paying parents happy.

The coach needs to pay his/her bills and put food on the table, and the amount they earn is directly related to how satisfied families and the club’s Director of Coaching are.

And it just feels great to win more often than not. One can get addicted to the euphoria of winning, the happy faces, and the write-up on the club’s website…

It becomes very difficult to truly develop players because you will lose a lot of games for many years.

For example, playing out from the back and encouraging players to develop and apply dribbling skills will backfire for many years.

However, players that develop the right way will eventually dominate the same opponents that beat them up when they were younger.

My oldest daughter’s U15 team learned to play the right way. The skills, the dribbling, the off-the-ball movement, the accurate passing, the shooting technique….are nice to watch.

They demolished the opponents 13:0 in the Final of a major tournament, won Regionals and Nationals last year, and are undefeated in all futsal competitions.

And they always (!) play out from the back, they always (!) use skills and ball control and beautiful passing combinations.

They easily beat opponents that try to use physical aggression and/or kick the ball up the field. In fact, we like this because we regain possession and simply work the ball back into the other team’s final third.

It’s a simple law of nature that the other team can’t score without possession. The only team that can score is the team that possesses the ball.

“For me ball possession is the most important thing. It’s the first step and then the second, third and fourth steps can come after. With the ball, you have more possibilities to create something and to concede fewer chances. Soccer is about having the ball, playing and dealing with the ball. Because when we have the ball we score a lot of goals and we don’t concede a lot.”

Pep Guardiola 2015

Here are two brief clips from that U15 Final to give you a taste for their technical skills and ball possession abilities:

To get to this point of soccer skills and IQ you need to have learned all those more sophisticated soccer skills.

It is an absolute guarantee that these girls would not even be close to their soccer proficiency if they hadn’t put in the hard work and patience and been coached to develop as players from a young age.

We were fortunate to have had coaches that for the most part focused on player development and not ‘winning’ and the parents supported that development ‘project’.

So which route do you take? Have some fun and focus on winning these next couple of years or be patient and focus on learning to become better soccer players despite many painful losses and no trophies?

It takes a very strong coach and DOC to truly focus on player development. And patient players and parents.

Everything is stacked against it, but it’s the only way to elevate soccer in our country.

And it’s the only way if you want your son or daughter to become the best they can be at soccer.

And if a club and/or coach prefers to mostly ‘play to win’ then that is fine too. Many players and parents might well prefer this.

But please don’t pretend you’re doing otherwise. Be honest and transparent about it, and let players and families decide which route they want to take.

That futsal Final felt great and I would do it the same way again. But I’m glad we only had to play that way once this winter.

However, outdoor coaches playing most games against evenly matched or stronger teams will have a strong incentive to ‘play to win’ most of the time. Keep this in mind.

Comparing Girls’ Development Academy with ECNL and High School Soccer

The launch of U.S. Soccer’s Girls’ Development Academy (GDA) this August is probably the single most discussed topic in girls’ soccer currently.

The GDA is supposed to mirror the successful Boys’ Development Academy, which was launched in 2007, and is expected to become the new home for our elite female soccer players, effectively replacing the Elite Clubs National League (ECNL), which will now become a league for the second tier teams.

Many clubs, coaches, and parents are wondering why there’s a need for a GDA when ECNL has been providing a regional and national league system for our best girls since 2009.

What makes this more contentious is the ‘no high school soccer’ rule for girls in the GDA. This rule states that GDA players cannot play high school soccer while also training and playing with the GDA primarily because of overuse health concerns and poor quality of coaching. They can, however, opt to take a three-month break from the GDA to play high school soccer and then return once the high school soccer season is over.

To help explain the reasons for the GDA, April Heinrichs, U.S. Soccer’s Women’s Technical Director, gave an interview to SoccerAmerica last November. I strongly encourage you to read it. April’s comments resonate strongly with me.

First, we haven’t emphasized technical skills enough in our country. Raw athleticism, speed, size, and aggression have dominated player selection for too long. This works well especially at younger ages if ‘winning’ and ‘rankings’ are important.

For example, U12 or U14 girls that are physically more mature and have the basics down will typically beat girls that are technically more proficient but are physically less developed at the same age. The club’s and coach’s win-percentage and team ranking will be higher, which in turn attracts more paying families.

But those same ‘winning’ girls will struggle eventually as their technically superior smaller peers mature physically too over time. And many of those ‘winning’ physically mature U12 or U14 girls overshoot as they fully mature into young women. I have seen many ‘winning’ 12, 13, and 14 year old girls turn into slow and ineffective players at age 15 and 16.

At the international level a focus on physical attributes won’t be sufficient going forward given the big improvements in the development of female soccer players in countries like Japan, France, Spain, and England.

For societal reasons and because of the deeply embedded male soccer culture in leading soccer nations, female players only recently started playing soccer in larger numbers there. And those countries are now bringing their deep expertise in player development from the men’s side to their female players.

This is very apparent when watching the most recent U17 and U20 Women’s World Cups. Japan and France in particular played the most sophisticated and complete soccer, and the gap between them and us in those age groups was significant.

“When people say the gap is closing, I would say the gap has closed and we’re falling behind in these areas.”  – April Heinrichs in NYT interview, June 2015

Going forward, the ideal female player combines soccer-specific athletic attributes with excellent technical skills and superior soccer IQ. And developing these kinds of players starts when they are very young and needs to continue throughout their youth soccer years.

This will also increase the quality of play domestically and the entertainment value, which in turn should lead to a larger viewership and, over time, more financial resources for women’s soccer.

So with this background in mind, here’s how April described the key differences for each of the girls’ soccer models:

GDA = Primarily Player Development – no financial incentives, just longer-term player development owned and organized by our national soccer federation. Strong centralized control over all aspects, including coaching standards, curriculum, training and game schedule.

ECNL = Primarily Business – a league for our pay-to-play clubs to compete against each other. Need to ‘win’ to keep and attract paying parents with talented girls. Clubs and coaches retain, for all practical intents and purposes, full independence.

High School Soccer = Primarily Social – girls enjoy playing with school friends for their school and get local peer group recognition. Focus is on ‘winning’ with the available pool of players at the school, not player development. Risk of injury is high.

I tried to capture the differences between three models at the national level in the following chart:

gdaecnlhighschoolnationwide

I support the introduction of the GDA because it promises to be the best *player development* environment for our elite girls, assuming the coaching quality and player development curriculum is truly world-class. And there will still be the ECNL for girls that either don’t make it into the GDA or prefer to play on ECNL teams.

There will be some regional differences initially – for example, here in NorCal of the big girls’ clubs only De Anza Force has committed to the GDA. Other clubs like Mustang and San Juan have decided to stay with ECNL for now, but that is likely to change if their best girls start to try out at GDA clubs once the dust has settled. In other regions, such as SoCal, ~80% of the top clubs have committed to the GDA as of February 2017.

So the chart for NorCal looks something like this:

gdaecnlhighschoolnorcal

In NorCal the best players and coaches will initially still be in the ECNL simply because all of the ECNL clubs and their players aren’t expected to switch to the GDA. However, as the GDA becomes established nationwide and much of the college recruiting and national team scouting aligns with that, more top female players in NorCal will switch to GDA clubs, which will force the ECNL clubs to apply for GDA membership too.

There are probably going to be more changes as we get closer to the summer and there are probably going to be some teething problems, but odds are high that the GDA will be successful. U.S. Soccer will put its full weight behind it. And the GDA will serve our most elite girls well because the focus promises to be primarily on ‘development’ not ‘winning’.

girls-da-map

One pro player’s traumatic experiences with head injuries

My teammate and I were standing outside RFK Stadium in Washington, D.C. It was April 2003, our first home game of the season against the Chicago Fire. It was my first official appearance as a professional soccer player. It was a dream come true.

“Let’s take a picture,” he said. “I feel like this is a day we definitely want to remember.” He handed someone his digital camera, we posed together and smiled.

[Click here for the original article @ThePlayers’Tribune]

I was a 20-year-old rookie — picked No. 1 by D.C. United in the MLS SuperDraft just a few months prior. I hadn’t played against Kansas City in our season opener, so I had made sure to bust my ass in practice that week.

A few days before the game, Coach had even pulled me aside to let me know that he was going to try to get me some minutes. So I put the word out to family and friends.

My parents drove down from New Jersey, my cousin flew in from L.A., some friends came up from the University of Virginia.

But I don’t remember seeing anyone at the match. I don’t remember my name being announced over the loudspeaker. I don’t remember the roar of the crowd and the bright lights.

I don’t even remember stepping onto the field.

Shortly after I came off the bench in the 65th minute, I found myself on the wrong end of a major collision while jumping for a header. I got undercut, flipped over and landed on my head.

I didn’t know it at the time, but the first game of my rookie season was the beginning of the end of my professional soccer career.

The photo we took two hours before the match would be the last thing I remembered until I ended up at the hospital later that night.

I was told that after the game, my mom and dad were waiting outside the locker room for me, but I walked right by them. I didn’t even acknowledge their presence. My team doctor had to explain that I had suffered a head injury and would be heading to the hospital to make sure my brain was not bleeding.

You know when someone claps their hands in front of your face to snap you back into reality? Well, an hour or so later, out of the blue, that’s what I felt happen as I suddenly became aware of where I was. I looked around and noticed my family and friends beside me in the hospital waiting room.

“What are we doing here?” I asked.

“He is still pretty out of it,” I heard my mother tell my father in Armenian. Her voice, and then seeing my family and friends gathered around me, are the first things I can really remember since taking the photograph.

But I still had no idea what had happened.

“Alecko, you hit your head,” the doctors told me.

After a few hours of tests, all the scans on my brain had come back negative for any major brain injury. The only outward sign that anything had happened was the cast on my hand for the three fingers I had broken in the collision.

As for my head, I was told to go home and get some rest, and if there were any problems, to call my team doctor immediately.

I didn’t have any idea how bad the fall was until I got to practice two days later and my coach pulled me into his office.

“Have you seen the video?” he asked me, his voice cracking and eyes welling up with tears. “You’re lucky to be walking, son.”

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He showed me the tape. The slow-motion replay of my entire body weight crashing on top of my head and neck made me nauseous. It wasn’t until then that I also realized I had actually stayed in the game.

I didn’t remember any of it. I just thought, I never want to see that again. And I wouldn’t for the next 12 years.

The crazy thing is, I still didn’t really understand the damage it had done to my brain.

Besides the doctors in the hospital, nobody ever mentioned the word concussion. And after a week of rest, I was back out playing and training with the team. Bullet dodged.

That is how my nightmare began.

Soccer brought my family to this country. My dad, Andranik, grew up an Armenian Christian in Tehran and became one of the best defenders in the history of the Iranian national team.

After playing for Iran at the 1978 World Cup, he was selected to the World All-Star team that played an exhibition game at Giants Stadium against the New York Cosmos.

Immediately after the match, the Cosmos offered him a contract. Despite interest from other top European clubs, my dad decided moving to the U.S. would be the best thing for our family.

So my parents moved with my older brother to New York, and a few years later I was born, more or less with a soccer ball at my feet.

Not a single day went by in my childhood where I didn’t play soccer. Whether in our backyard, or in our basement, or at the park down the street from our house, or with my dad and his teammates — Giorgio Chinaglia, Carlos Alberto, Hubert Birkenmeier, even Pelé. To me, they were just friends who were always ready to kick the ball around with me.

Soccer was life for my family. In my elementary school yearbooks, my classmates and I had to write what we wanted to be when we grew up. Other kids wrote the usual: doctor, astronaut, police officer, and so on. Next to my name were three words, “Professional soccer player.”

Even off the pitch, soccer was an integral part of our lives. In 1982, Hubert had opened up Birkenmeier Sport Shop, one of the first and only soccer shops in the U.S. But in 1985, as the Cosmos roster went through a major upheaval, Hubert and my dad both got traded and had to relocate to continue their careers.

My father had a different idea – he would instead choose to retire from pro soccer, buy the shop from Hubert, and plant our family roots in New Jersey.

The shop became my second home — and the place where everyone came to talk soccer. Almost every serious soccer player from northern New Jersey — including men’s national team stars Tony Meola, Tab Ramos, John Harkes, Gregg Berhalter, and Giuseppe Rossi — grew up coming to the shop.

Sure, Dad’s store sold the newest cleats or kits, but mostly people would come by to talk soccer with my dad and Hubert, who had returned after finishing his playing career.

Meanwhile, I was busy following in my dad’s footsteps as a player. I was New Jersey’s high school player of the year in 2000 and won the Hermann Trophy as the top player in college soccer in ’02.

By that time, I had already represented the U.S. in the FIFA U-20 World Cup. In ’04, I led the U.S. in scoring during Olympic qualifying. Despite getting my own trials with several European clubs, I knew that I wanted to be close to my family. After my junior season at UVA, I decided to enter the MLS draft.

My first game in MLS was supposed to be one I would never forget. Instead it was one that I cannot remember.

I was fortunate that Carlos Bocanegra, a defender for the Fire in that game, was looking out for my well-being. After I stayed on the field following my injury, he and other players actually alerted the referee and medical staff to get me out of the game.

I’ve since been told that I was saying things that did not make any sense after the collision, cursing at guys, saying we were in San Francisco even as I was standing on the pitch in Washington, D.C.

Most people don’t really think of soccer as a contact sport, but that couldn’t be further from the truth. As the game has gotten more physical, and players have gotten faster and stronger, collisions have become more violent. The number of head injuries has been growing rapidly.

Still, most don’t realize the seriousness of head injuries, how to identify them and most importantly, how to treat them.

 

EARTHQUAKE DC UNTED

After getting knocked unconscious in my first game, I was back on the field in a week. All I needed to hear was that I had been cleared to play and that was enough for me.

It was the same story the following season when I was hit in the back of my head after a scuffle broke out during a match. “Just take a week off to get some rest,” our trainers told me.

Once again I thought, As long as I’m cleared then I should be fine, right? That certainly seemed to be the way it worked out. I scored 14 goals that season, made the All-Star team and was named MLS Cup MVP as we won the championship. I was called in to represent the U.S. Men’s National Team.

Everything was going according to plan. Or at least it seemed to be.

What I didn’t know, however, was that those two hits had done lasting damage to my brain. So when I suffered my third concussion less than a year later in 2005, it had an immediate and devastating effect.

With no more than a couple minutes left in a match against the New England Revolution, the knee of their goalkeeper slammed into the side of my head.

It felt like getting hit with a baseball bat.

And then everything went silent, except for the throbbing and pounding inside my head. It was as if my heart had replaced my brain and all I could feel was it beating inside my skull.

“Esky, are you alright?” I heard the referee ask as he stood over me.

“No,” I muttered. “This isn’t good.”

My trainer took me straight into the locker room and for the next few hours, it felt like I was drunk. Time seemed to slow down and my balance was unstable.

As I did after the first two concussions, I took some cognitive tests, and just like the first two times, I passed every one.

But something was different. This time, I felt a pressure in my skull that I had never felt before. Our team doctor noticed my concern and made sure a friend drove me home.

I thought that — again, just like with my first two head injuries — if I just laid low and got some sleep I would feel better in the morning.

But this time I didn’t.

When I woke up on Sunday morning, it felt like there was a cinder block in the back of my head, like blood had just pooled there overnight. The throbbing was still there, too.

I met with a neurologist on Monday. More tests, more passing, more reassurances that everything would be O.K. More instructions to just take it easy and to take some Tylenol if the headaches persisted.

And a week or so later? Cleared to play.

Alecko Eskandarian

But I still felt that something wasn’t right. The pain, the pressure, the weight in the back of my head — they just wouldn’t go away.

I returned to training, where all my coaches and trainers and teammates knew that doctors had cleared me to play. So the mental warfare began. Do I just suck it up? If I’ve been cleared I must be fine, right? No athlete ever wants to be “that guy” sitting out. Ever. Especially for “headaches.”

I felt like I had no choice. I began playing again. I had never before depended on painkillers, but suddenly I needed them badly. After training, my symptoms would get even worse. How many Tylenol am I supposed to take before the pain goes away?

The locker room was not a good place for me to vent my frustration. Every guy in there was playing through some sort of injury. Any mention of my discomfort and the ribbing would start.

Man, you’re sitting out for that?

Oh, trying to get another vacation day?

I wish I could get a day off every time I had a headache.

Nobody understood what I was going through. But I was determined to beat this thing. I focused all my energy on sucking it up, getting back on the field — for my livelihood, for my career. After missing games for three straight weeks, I was back training and finally set to return to the starting lineup.

But a few days before the game, as I was driving home to my Georgetown apartment after practice, I suddenly experienced a headache so sharp that I could actually hear it. You know that sound when a microphone screeches? That terrible, piercing ring that keeps rising?

I had to close my eyes. I swerved across three lanes of traffic. How I didn’t end up in a car accident I’ll never know.

I immediately called my trainer and asked to meet with a new neurologist in order to get a second opinion. The next day at the doctor’s office, I told him everything I had been through, starting with the collision in the first game of my rookie year. He just looked at me in disbelief.

“If you play soccer and you get hit in the head again, you might die,” he said.

He told me that I would have to be shut down for a minimum of two months, until I was completely symptom free. No physical activity — nothing that would raise my heart rate until the headaches went away.

For the next 10 months, I was a ghost.

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I stopped answering the phone. I stopped going out with my friends. I used to be the happiest guy in the locker room, always ready to share a story or play a practical joke.

Now, I would sit in my apartment and watch the hours go by. I struggled to eat more than one meal a day. It was torture to go to games at the stadium to support my teammates. The atmosphere at RFK — which I had once thrived on — now triggered headaches.

The thing I loved most in this world had been taken away from me and I didn’t know what to do.

I just felt isolated and helpless. And honestly, I was terrified about not knowing what was going to happen. If I was going to recover, or if the depression was going to consume me.

The worst part about my recovery was that no one was able to see what I was going through. To the naked eye, you would have thought I was fine.

I wasn’t. I didn’t know if the headaches would ever go away. If I’d ever feel like myself again. I didn’t know if I’d ever return to the field.

Most people thought I was done. About a week before one of the last games of the season, I got Facebook messages from members of the Screaming Eagles and Barra Brava, two D.C. United supporters groups.

“At the next match just make sure you have a good view of our supporters’ section in the 11th minute.”

That weekend, I went to the match and looked to where the Screaming Eagles sit. At the 11th minute, they held up a huge banner.

 

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I got pretty emotional about it. I mean, of course it was an incredible gesture from the fans to let me know that they hadn’t forgotten about me —but it was also like, Holy shit, it’s as if I’ve died.

At that point, it actually felt like I already had. I was pretty much ready to risk my life for the game. I was only 22, and I might have been romanticizing things a bit, but more than once I had thought to myself, I’d rather die on the field than never play again.

It all sort of reached a boiling point when I went back home to New Jersey for the off-season. I’d always been close with my parents, but because of everything I’d been going through, I was not a pleasant person to be around. When I was living in D.C., I had grown increasingly frustrated any time they would call to ask if I was feeling any better.

“No, I still have headaches. Every day is the same. Please stop asking.”

Being back home, I had family support to lean on, but I rejected it. I started to feel sorry for myself, and with the holidays around the corner, I became annoyed about how cheery everyone was.

I thought, My life’s work is being taken away from me. I have no idea if I’ll ever get better, and you want me to buy presents, put up Christmas decorations and sing carols?

I knew that I had to start digging myself out the hole I was in — not just to play soccer again, but to have any sort of life period. I set up a treadmill that my brother and I had gotten for my parents and started running.

Two minutes without a headache. Next day, five minutes. The next, 10 minutes. I started doing crossword puzzles to keep my brain active. I made sure my brain was at full rest for a certain number of hours a day — no TV, no reading, no straining whatsoever. I basically re-calibrated my entire life.

Soon, the weight and the pressure in my head started to subside, and life felt more … normal. And when preseason rolled around in February, I had been symptom-free long enough to rejoin the team.

We took things easy at first, but eventually, I found myself back on the pitch at RFK Stadium for our season-opener — and scoring off a left-footed volley.

I knew there were still uncertainties with my head, but I made the All-Star team again that season, and was one of the league’s top goal scorers. I even scored in an exhibition game against Real Madrid in front of 70,000 fans. I was back. My teammate Josh Gros started calling me “the Truman Show.”

“Your life couldn’t be any more scripted,” he said.

I have to admit, everything felt so surreal. I thought, Am I still concussed and dreaming all of this? I played every game and celebrated every goal like it was my last, because I knew it could have been.

LA Galaxy v New York Red Bulls

And four years later, on July 19, 2009, I did play my last game. Call it piss-poor luck or a heartbreaking twist, but I suffered my fourth concussion while playing for the L.A. Galaxy when an opposing defender inadvertently cleared the ball into my face.

Once again, everything went black. I couldn’t breathe. It felt like I was swallowing my tongue. I had broken my nose and started spitting out blood. My old symptoms had returned. This time, worse than before.

I tried to convince myself that I could pull off another comeback. But this time, my doctors and coaches weren’t willing to take the risk. I wasn’t cleared to play.

“If you were my son, I’d tell you to stop,” my coach at the time told me.

I went from living in paradise in Hermosa Beach to once again being consumed by depression — steps away from the sand and the ocean, but confined to the darkness of my apartment.

I tried to fight it as best as I could. I kept myself busy and started doing some TV broadcasting work. I started taking business courses. I was making new friends. But none of it helped me escape my reality.

I could feel myself spiraling downward and I knew I needed change. So I moved back to Charlottesville, to finish up my degree at UVA and find an escape from soccer.

At school, new challenges awaited. The damage to my brain was worse than before. I struggled to focus and began experiencing vertigo.

One day in Charlottesville, after finishing a light workout my body suddenly went into shock. My head began pounding. I started shaking. I felt nauseous. I was fading.

Sitting in the passenger seat of my friend’s car while he rushed me to the hospital, I quickly ruled out any thought of a comeback.

“It’s over,” I said as we drove up Route 29. “I’ll never play again.”

“Dude, what?” my buddy said.

“I’ll never play soccer again.”

“Uh, yeah? I’m taking you to the hospital to make sure you don’t die and you’re worried about whether you’ll kick a ball again?”

The next day, I wrote it down. I’m never going to be a professional soccer player again.

When I look back on my career, I think about dribbling a ball around my dad’s soccer shop and dreaming about playing in front of thousands of people.

I think about the great teams and teammates I played with. I think about how I got to share the field with some of soccer’s biggest stars — Messi, Cristiano Ronaldo, Ronaldinho, Pirlo, David Beckham.

Yet something else also happened on those fields that changed my life. And it’s still happening.

It wasn’t until I went through head injuries myself that I realized how many people are struggling with the aftereffects of concussions.

Even over the course of my own recovery, I haven’t wanted to open up about what I have gone through. I didn’t want to talk about the dark places my concussions took me, the depression, the isolation, the helplessness. How could I help others if I couldn’t help myself?

It wasn’t until I went through head injuries myself that I realized how many people are struggling.

But, I’m finally at a point where I have learned to manage my brain injury, and it’s time I start sharing my story about concussions in soccer. It’s time that all soccer players do.

As I’ve started to be more open about my own struggles, dozens and dozens of players of all ages have reached out to me asking for guidance or advice.

I remember when I was recovering from my third concussion, I got a call from my agent. He told me that former MLS midfielder Ross Paule wanted to talk to me. A few days later, my phone rang.

“This isn’t the life you want,” Ross told me, and warned me not to rush to come back. He’d suffered concussions while playing for the Columbus Crew and had tried to play through them — until they eventually forced him to retire.

“I can’t drive after dark,” he said. “I can’t play with my little girl. You don’t want this.”

I remember I was sitting in the Galaxy dressing room after my fourth concussion when David Beckham approached me.

“Mate, I’m so sorry you’re going through this. Same thing happened to one of my teammates at Manchester United. He sat in a dark room for a month.”

As an assistant coach now for the NASL’s New York Cosmos, I sat down recently with one of our players who had suffered a concussion. I told him about my experiences and how he needed to be careful.

He just stared back at me. In his face, I saw the same 20-year-old I had been. I knew how much he wanted to be on the field and how all he wanted to hear was that he was cleared to play.

It hurt me that he couldn’t see what I had gone through. If only there was a scar to show….

For all the progress we’ve made in the last few years, education about head injuries still needs to be emphasized more by leagues, coaches and trainers. There is still no clear-cut diagnosis process or treatment method.

I still can’t sit in the back of a car without feeling nauseous. I can’t yell throughout practices or games. I can’t raise my heart rate too high without getting headaches.

But I decided a few years ago to focus on what I can do. And much of that is not taking things for granted anymore — like being able to go outside and run, which led to running in my first marathon this past month.

And another thing I can do is talk about a serious problem — one that is growing —in our sport. We all need to keep talking about it — so that no one has to experience what I did.

ALECKO ESKANDARIAN

alecko-sign

“I used to head 100 balls a day and I don’t remember good times so well.”

You are probably aware of ongoing discussions regarding head injuries in soccer (it’s much much worse for (American) football, of course, but it’s an issue for soccer too).

Full-blown concussions typically take center-stage, but medical professionals are now also worried about the many smaller sub-concussive blows to the head.

And there is increasing evidence that even just rapid head movements can cause long-term damage.

In response, U.S. Soccer recently introduced a powerful educational concussion video and the no-heading rule for players up to and including twelve years of age.

This caused some frustration, including concerns about our youngsters not being able to head the ball well when they are older. 

Some also felt that this was an overreaction and that heading the ball safely (with the front of the head instead of the top or sides) can be taught from a young age.

The risks associated with heading balls is not yet properly understood. Scientists and medical professionals are working to understand this much better, but it will take some time.

In the meantime, I would like to share the experiences of a family friend with you.

Chris Nicholl was a professional soccer player and manager in the English Premier League. He played as a central defender for Aston Villa (1972–1977) (210 league appearances) and then Southampton (1977-1983) (228 league appearances).

Chris also played internationally for Northern Ireland (51 caps). After he retired from his playing career, Chris managed Southampton amongst other clubs.

I’ve added a vintage clip at the end of this article showing Chris’ most famous goal, scored during the League Cup Final against Everton.

But arguably his most memorable feat was scoring all four goals in a 2:2 draw between Aston Villa and Leicester City. 😁
Chris was interviewed by the Daily Mail a couple of weeks ago and I’m pasting a key passage below. Click here for the full article.

“I know I’m brain damaged from heading footballs. I used to head 100 balls almost every day. When I was at Aston Villa I would watch all my team-mates going home in their cars and I would still be there on the training pitch with Ray Grayden who used to send them long. It’s definitely affected my memory. The balls were a lot heavier then.” Nicholl points to his nose which is unnaturally curved and crooked. “Maybe you can tell, I used to head more with my nose,” he adds. “It’s not recommended.”

To be clear, Chris’ example doesn’t prove that heading the ball causes brain damage nor how many headers per day/week/month are safe. His memory loss might simply be age related (he is 70).

However, the medical research community in England and now also the English FA is looking into pre-mature deaths and behavioral changes of former players.

Early evidence is showing that some died of chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), the same condition as American football players.

And three members of England’s 1966 World Cup winning squad suffered from Alzheimer’s disease, believed to be caused by heading.

According to one health advocate in England, 75% to 80% of the players that contact her are centre-halves and centre-forwards.

“Obviously not all of them are, but the vast majority are. Although any player on the pitch can head the ball, centre halves and strikers head the ball more, especially in those days.”

Researchers at the University of Stirling, UK, found heading the ball just 20 times could make “small but significant changes in brain function” for the next 24 hours, when memory performance was reduced between 41 and 67 per cent.

I hope this serves as a cautionary tale. 

Unfortunately, as a referee I still see too many coaches who ignore or down-play players’ head injuries during games and practices.

Let’s err on the side of caution for our youngsters, folks. The brain is precious and damage to it often doesn’t become apparent until later in life.

That damage is irreversible and fundamentally changes who you are as a person well before your pre-mature death.

Play with happiness. Play free. Be creative. Just play with the ball.

Read the below letter from Ronaldinho and then watch the clip at the end. Enjoy!

Dear eight-year-old Ronaldinho,

Tomorrow, when you come home from playing football, there will be a lot of people in your house. Your uncles, friends of your family and some other people you won’t recognize will be in the kitchen. At first, you’ll think you’re just late for the party. Everybody’s there to celebrate the 18th birthday of your brother, Roberto.

ronaldinhoasboywithbrother
Ronaldinho the boy with brother Roberto

Usually when you come home from football, mom is always laughing or joking around.

But this time, she’ll be crying.

And then you will see Roberto. He will put his arm around you and bring you inside the bathroom so you can be alone. Then he will tell you something you won’t understand.

“There was an accident. Dad is gone. He died.”

It won’t make sense to you. What does that mean? When is he coming back? How could dad be gone?

Dad was the one who told you play creatively on the football pitch, the one who told you to play with a free style — to just play with the ball. He believed in you more than anyone. When Roberto started playing professional football for Grêmio last year, Dad told everyone, “Roberto is good, but watch his younger brother coming up.”

Dad was a superhero. He loved football so much that even after working at the shipyard during the week, he would work security at Grêmio’s stadium on the weekend. How could you never see him again? You won’t understand what Roberto is telling you.

You’re not going to feel sadness right away. That will come later. A few years from now, you will accept that Dad is never coming back on earth. But what I want you to understand is that every time you have a ball at your feet, Dad will be with you.

When you have a football at your feet, you are free. You are happy. It’s almost like you are hearing music. That feeling will make you want to spread joy to others.

You are lucky because you have Roberto. Even though he’s 10 years older and already playing for Grêmio, Roberto will be there for you always. He won’t just be a brother, he will become like a father to you. And more than anything, he’ll be your hero.

You’ll want to play like him, you’ll want to be like him. Every morning, when you head to Grêmio — you will play for the youth side, while Roberto plays for the senior team — you’ll get to walk into the locker room with your big brother, the football star. And every night, when you go to bed, you’ll think, I get to share a room with my idol.

There are no posters on the walls in the bedroom you share, there’s only a small TV. It won’t matter anyway, because you won’t have time to watch any matches together. When he’s not traveling for matches, Roberto is taking you outside to play more football.

Where you live in Porto Alegre, there are drugs and gangs and that kind of stuff around. It’s going to be tough, but as long as you are playing football — on the street, at the park, with your dog — you will feel safe.

Yes, I said your dog, by the way. He’s a tireless defender.

You’ll play with Roberto. You’ll play with other kids and older guys at the park. But eventually everyone will get tired — and you will want to keep playing. So make sure you always take your dog, Bombom, out with you. Bombom is a mutt. A real Brazilian dog. And even Brazilian dogs love football. He’ll be great practice for dribbling and skills … and maybe the first casualty of the “Elastico.”

Years from now, when you are playing in Europe, a few defenders will remind you of Bombom.

Childhood is going to be very different for you. By the time you’re 13, people will have started talking about you. They’ll talk about your skills and what you’re able to do with a ball. At this time, football is still just a game to you. But in 1994, when you are 14, the World Cup will show you that football is more than just a simple game.

July 17, 1994, is a day every Brazilian remembers. On that day, you’ll be traveling with the Grêmio youth team for a match in Belo Horizonte. The World Cup final is on TV, and it’ll be Brazil against Italy. Yes, that’s right, the Canarinho will be in a World Cup final for the first time in 24 years. The whole country will seem to stop.

Everywhere in Belo Horizonte, there will be Brazilian flags. There will be no colors except green and yellow that day. Every single spot in the city will have the match turned on and be filled with people.

You’ll be watching with your teammates. The final whistle will blow with the score tied 0–0. The game will go to a penalty shootout.

Italy misses their first PK, and so does Brazil. Then Italy scores. And then … Romario steps up. His shot curves to the left … hits the post … and flies in the goal. The guys on the team are screaming and yelling.

Italy scores and there’s silence again.

Branco scores for Brazil … Taffarel makes a save for Brazil … Dunga scores for Brazil.…

Then, the moment that will not just change your life, but the lives of millions of Brazilians.…

Baggio steps up to the spot for Italy and misses.

Brazil are World Cup champions.

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During the crazy celebration, it’s going to become clear to you what you want to do for the rest of your life. You’re going to finally realize what football means to Brazilians. You’re going to feel the power of this sport. Most importantly, you will see the happiness that football can bring to regular people.

“I’m going to play for Brazil,” you’ll tell yourself that day.

Not everyone is going to believe in you, especially with the way you play.

There will be some coaches — alright, one in particular — who will tell you not to play the way you do. He will think you need to be more serious, that you need to stop dribbling so much. “You’ll never in your life make it as a footballer,” he’ll say.

Use those words as motivation. Use them to keep you focused. And then think about the players who did play the game beautifully — Dener, Maradona, Ronaldo.

Think about what Dad said, to play free and to just play with the ball. Play with joy. This is something that many coaches will not understand, but when you are on the pitch, you will never calculate. Everything will come naturally. Before you have time to think, your feet have already made a decision.

Creativity will take you further than calculation.

One day, just a few months after you watch Romario lift the ’94 World Cup, your coach at Grêmio is going to pull you into his office after training. He’ll tell you that you’ve been called up to the Brazilian under-17 national team.

When you get to the training camp in Teresópolis, you will see something that you will never forget: When you walk into the cafeteria, you’ll notice the framed photos hanging on the walls — Pelé, Zico, Bebeto.

You’ll be walking the same halls as those legends. You’ll sit at the same cafeteria tables that Romario, Ronaldo and Rivaldo sat in. You’ll eat the same food they ate. You’ll sleep in the same dorms they slept in. When you put your head down to sleep, your last thought will be, I wonder which of my heroes slept on this pillow, too.

For the next four years, you will do nothing but play football. You will spend your life on buses and training pitches. In fact, from 1995 to 2003, you will never take a vacation. It will be very intense.

But when you turn 18, you will achieve something your father would have been very proud of. You will make your debut for Grêmio’s senior team. The only sad part is that Roberto won’t be there. A knee injury will cut his time at Grêmio short and he’ll go to Switzerland to play. You won’t get to share the pitch with your hero, but you’ve spent so many years watching Roberto that you’ll know what to do and how to act.

On match days, you’ll walk through the car park where your father used to work security on the weekends. You’ll enter the dressing room where your brother used to take you as a kid. You’ll pull on the blue and black Grêmio shirt. You’ll think: Life can’t get any better than this. You’ll think you have finally made it, playing for your hometown club.

But this is not where your story ends.

The next year, you will play your first senior match with the Brazilian national team. A funny thing will happen. You will actually show up to your first training camp a day later than your teammates. Why? You’ll be delayed by a match with Grêmio in the final of the Campeonato Gaúcho tournament against Internacional.

Playing for Internacional will be the captain of the ’94 World Cup team, Dunga.

You will play very well in this match. So when you arrive to the pitch for your first day of training with Brazil, your new teammates — the guys you watched win the ’94 World Cup — will be talking about one player: the small kid wearing number 10.

They’ll be talking about you.

They’ll be talking about how you dribbled past Dunga. They’ll be talking about your title-winning goal. But don’t get too confident, because they’re not going to go easy on you. This will be the most important moment of your life. When you get to this level, people will expect many things of you.

Will you keep playing your way?

Or will you start to calculate? Will you play it safe?

The only advice I have to give you is this: Do it your way. Be free. Hear the music. This is the only way for you to live your life.

Playing for Brazil will change your life. All of a sudden, doors you never even knew were available to you will start to open.

You’ll start to think about playing in Europe, where a lot of your heroes went to prove themselves. Ronaldo will tell you about life in Barcelona. You’ll see his awards, his Ballon d’Or, his club trophies. Suddenly, you’ll want to make history too. You will start to dream beyond Grêmio. In 2001, you will sign with Paris Saint-Germain.

How can I tell a kid who was born in a wooden house in a favela what life will be like in Europe? It’s impossible. You will not understand, even if I tell you. From the time you leave for Paris, then Barcelona, then Milan, everything will go by very, very fast. Some of the media in Europe will not understand your style of play. They will not understand why you are always smiling.

Well, you are smiling because football is fun. Why would you be serious? Your goal is to spread joy. I’ll say it again — creativity over calculation.

Stay free, and you’ll win a World Cup for Brazil.

Stay free, and you’ll win the Champions League, La Liga and Serie A.

Stay free, and you’ll win a Ballon d’Or.

What you’ll be most proud of, though, is helping to change football in Barcelona through your style of play. When you arrive there, Real Madrid will be the power of Spanish football. By the time you leave the club, kids will be dreaming of playing “the Barcelona way.”

Listen to me, though. Your role in this will be about much more than what you do on the pitch.

ronaldinhoworldcupchampion
Ronaldinho as World Cup Champion

At Barcelona, you’ll hear about this kid on the youth team. He wears number 10 like you. He’s small like you. He plays with the ball like you. You and your teammates will go watch him play for Barcelona’s youth squad, and at that moment you’ll know he’s going to be more than a great footballer. The kid is different. His name is Leo Messi.

You’ll tell the coaches to bring him up to play with you on the senior side. When he arrives, the Barcelona players will be talking about him like the Brazilian players were talking about you.

I want you to give him one piece of advice.

Tell him, “Play with happiness. Play free. Just play with the ball.”

Even when you are gone, the free style will live on in Barcelona through Messi.

ronaldinho and messi

A lot will happen in your life, good and bad. But everything that happens, you will owe to football. When people question your style, or why you smile after you lose a match, I want you to think of one memory.

When your father leaves this earth, you won’t have any movies of him. Your family doesn’t have much money, so your parents don’t own a video camera. You won’t be able to hear your father’s voice, or hear him laughing again.

But among his possessions, there is one thing you’ll always have to remember him by. It’s a photo of you and him playing football together. You are smiling, happy — with the ball at your feet. He is happy watching you.

When the money comes — and the pressure, and the critics — stay free.

Play as he told you to play.

Play with the ball.

[Click here for a clip showing Ronaldinho play with the ball and his opponents.]

—Ronaldinho

signatureronaldinho

The original was published by The Players’ Tribune. Click here for the original article in English, here for the Spanish version, and here for the Portuguese version.

Powerful concussion video released by U.S. Soccer

As part of the ongoing efforts to educate the soccer community, U.S. Soccer recently released the below powerful video.

It follows a player through her journey on the road to recovery; from the initial impact, assessment, recovery, and finally back on the pitch.

The message in the video is simple, “Recognize the symptoms, take the appropriate action, and come back to the game 100%”.

This message is one that we cannot fail to share enough with the soccer community. Only with your diligence on the pitch during games and practices, can we make an impact on our players’ road to recovery.

Please share the below video with your players, parents, coaches, administrators and friends in soccer. Also share this U.S. Soccer webpage and this link to useful shareable resources, including impactful printable materials.

The above text is taken, in part, from Cal North’s website and edited for brevity.

Finally, please keep in mind that concussions are just the tip of the iceberg. There is growing scientific evidence that even repeated sub-concussive impacts on the brain can lead to severe lifetime brain damage. Click here for more information.

Offside during recent Liverpool game

Probably one of the two most contentious issues during soccer games are offside decisions (the other is ‘handball’). This comes up during pretty much every game – coaches and parents protesting ‘obvious’ bad offside calls by the referees.

I’m not going to get into the technicalities of precisely what offside is here, but if you want further background please click here for a blog post that includes a discussion of offside and why it’s so very difficult to determine unless you are the AR in the right position. Even the CR can’t make that decision unless it’s blatantly obvious.

Instead, let’s take a look at a very difficult offside decision during a very recent EPL Liverpool game.

First, what does this screen shot tell you? White #8 is clearly offside, correct? He’s closer to the goal than the red defenders when his teammate heads the ball towards him.

liverpooloffside1

Next, let’s rotate our field of view. What does this next screen shot show?

liverpooloffside2

It clearly shows White #8 NOT in an offside position because he is level with Red #11 the moment his teammate heads the ball towards him.

Quite amazing the difference the angle of view makes, right?

However, the play isn’t over yet. Let’s take a look at the next screen shot.

liverpooloffside4

The white player at the top headed the ball towards White #8, but it lands short in front of the white player barely visible in front of Red #6. Both that white player and Red #6 stretch their left leg to reach the ball.

The moment the white player’s leg touches the ball is another potential offside infraction by White #8. However, White #8 is again NOT in an offside position because the red player’s outstretched left leg (or more precisely his left foot) is closer to the goal than any body part of White #8 (please note that hands and arms don’t count for offside decisions).

The ball then landed in front of White #8 who scored. The referees rightfully awarded the goal.

Now imagine all this unfolding in realtime and you’re one of the referees. This is very difficult to get right unless you are highly trained and have the experience to apply the laws of the game in realtime as the action unfolds.

Please consider giving the referees the benefit of doubt during your youth games. Referees do make mistakes, of course, and they are the first to admit it, but please keep in mind that coaches and parents simply aren’t close enough to the action, nor have the right angle of view, nor fully understand the offside law and how to apply it.

For the good of the game and your kid’s enjoyment please think twice before reacting to an ‘obvious’ offside ‘mistake’.

Italian youth soccer “calcio” culture

SoccerAmerica published a great article on one Bay Area family’s experiences in the Italian youth soccer scene. It’s written by Chris Pepe who’s son plays on the U12 Juventus DA team here in the Bay Area. Thank you for sharing your experiences, Chris!

Click here for the full article. For brevity, I took the liberty of posting only the key parts of Chris’ article below. I recognize immediately what Chris describes from my time growing up in Europe. The same observations apply to Latin America.

The difference between a soccer culture that is deeply embedded within society and one that is just another scheduled sports activity shows itself on the fields of play.

If you’re interested in my views on this please click here, here, and here for additional articles.

Ok, here are Chris’ observations in Italy:

“At some point in the evolution of soccer in the USA, it seems we all became convinced that our children could or even would play professionally … statistics be damned! A truly American belief, born out of our eternal optimism and sometimes nauseating can-do spirit.

Despite the lack of a broad-based structure to scout and identify young talent, we still believe our kid will be the one. Irrespective of the millions of kids playing soccer for countless hours every day, we think the two hours on Monday, Wednesday and Friday is enough.

Despite the desire buried deep inside the impoverished kid that needs to play to find a better life, we are convinced it can be done. It’s a matter of expectations, and if there is one area where the USA over-indexes against its soccer-rich counterparts, it’s in confidence and its closest offsprings: expectations.

In Italy, instead, it is generally accepted at an early age that your kid won’t play for Inter or AC Milan. The best talent is selected early on, in some ways lowering the level of expectations that your son will become a professional player, and easing your desired outcome for this weekend’s game.

Nationwide rankings are not discussed or, to the best of my knowledge, even kept at the youth level here. The game is not played to bolster coaches’ ratings or build association points or prestige.

The Italian youth soccer game forms part of an intricate social structure that contains layers of amateur teams and professional associations that neatly ladder up to the professional Serie A.

Every town and village has its own top-flight squad, and a structure below that ladders its way up. Whether the top team plays in Serie A, B or C, or somewhere below, matters little other than the fact that it enables every player in every town to continue to play for as long as they may choose.

In our adopted town in Italy, knowing that the ‘best’ and most connected kids were playing for our local Serie B youth team, Vicenza Calcio, weekends have become much more relaxing. Oh sure, you do get to play against them, if only to see how the game is properly played.

And, yes, exposure is possible even at the lowest levels and in the smallest town, but is identified early on freeing the mind and the soul to play for the love of the game and with no particular professional ends in mind.

My son’s new school in Italy is attached to one of the many local churches, Chiesa del Carmine. As tourists, we had often marveled at the number of churches in Italy, rarely seeing the hidden courtyard sheltering a small calcetto court behind. Think small-sided 5v5 games on a basketball-style court. [Side note from this blogger: click here for a similar neighborhood court I came across wandering around downtown Barcelona recently.]

The Carmine courtyard has a small-sized soccer field, and numerous well-spaced trees that act as goalposts for any number of after school pick-up games. As the courtyard turns into a public park in the afternoons, kids from the neighborhood rush to pick teams, wearing last years Juve or Milan shirt bought at the market for 10 euro.

They Ro Sham Bo to determine teams, and proceed to play with reckless abandon. There is no structure or hired coach, there are no fees or scheduled breaks. Kids only stop play to cheer the slickest new move, or to get pointers on how to execute the latest trick. Older kids look out for younger kids, and younger kids test their toughness against older kids.

No meals will be missed, but kids play until darkness descends and their hearts are full of the beautiful game. It is here among friends where new moves are tried, individual skills are honed, and confidence is built.

In the USA, I would drop off my son at assigned times to run and kick and learn soccer’s structured basic skill-set. I would then rush to bring my daughter to her practice at the same time; do a bit of shopping; or maybe sneak in a run.

There was never an after school pick-up game or other opportunity to play. I could often convince my friend Marvin, a Salvadoran-American, to bring his three sons and meet at the local park. But even then, we never had enough players for a spirited match, and would make up games or run through drills.

I have often believed that U.S. youth soccer is dominated by ‘organized’ babysitting, as opposed to spontaneous play, and this notion has been reaffirmed while living in a country that has soccer as part of its very DNA.

While soccer remains perched on the cusp of a real mainstream following in the USA, we continue to excel at ‘soccer-by-appointment,’ rather than evolving into a sport driven by passion. Kids in Italy, while not quite filling every piazza with neighborhood match-ups, still play calcio more for the fun of it than for the appointed necessity of it all.

On my son’s Italian team (San Lazzaro), sponsored by the local pizza joint (Pizzeria Albera), there is no one outstanding athlete that can out-run the pack, and score off a long ball sent from the defense. It helps of course that, at this age (until age 13), kids play 9-a-side games on small-ish fields, with even smaller goals. There are three periods of 20 minutes a-piece, and little substituting.

At the start of each game, kids line up and walk to the center circle, while parents applaud both sides in an effort to set a standard for fair play. Once play begins, the focus is on playing the game properly and as one cohesive unit, one team. When the ball does cross the end-line, the keeper, no matter his skill level, must always play the ball from the back to his expectant defenders.

The team will then work the ball up through the midfield, and across the halfway line. Sure, this leads to countless mistakes and numerous unaccounted-for goals; irrespective, the emphasis remains the same, and the game must still be initiated from the back. It’s a rare match when the keeper punts the ball more than twice, and even more rare for a long ball to be played.

Winning remains an objective, however it’s the appearance of play, the ‘bella figura,’ that matters most. Losing well and looking good are acceptable; losing bad and looking bad are not.

Calcio and life are inextricably intertwined in so many ways here. Here you learn from a very young age that soccer is much more than a game. It’s a way of life.”

Pitfalls of affiliation with European pro soccer clubs?

You might have read this blog post about the many changes in our Bay Area youth soccer landscape and also one with two recorded calls from two US youth soccer clubs discussing their experiences affiliating with European pro teams.

This post is a guest post written by Andrew Hogg, a Bay Area soccer dad, with his perspectives on the value of affiliations of our youth soccer clubs with European pro clubs.

The insights and views in this post are Andrew’s only, and he takes a strong position on this issue that won’t agree with some of you, but I hope that his views help to at least inform the debate about the value of these affiliations.

Please also refer to the comments section below for additional/opposing perspectives.

Over the last few years an increasing number of youth soccer clubs have ‘affiliated’ themselves with European pro soccer clubs. Those clubs include West Ham, Tottenham, Liverpool, Arsenal, and Bayern Munich.

The big question for parents and youngsters should be what the benefits will be on the field and how will the youngster improve as a player. Ask this question of many US youth clubs who have been affiliates for a few years and they typically only speak in generalities and typically point to overall ‘club growth’ as a benefit.

So let’s examine some of the promises made by our local youth clubs and their affiliated European clubs:

  • Access to their European youth development curriculum
  • An ID program or player development camps
  • Monthly calls with pro club coaches
  • One or two visits a year from pro club coaches
  • ‘Select teams’ formed from multiple affiliated US youth clubs to travel to tournaments in Europe
  • The possibility of select youngsters being able to train with the European clubs’ home youth academy

In return for these benefits, the US affiliate youth club pays an up-front fee, some annual fee, and requires their players to buy (typically once a year) and wear the Euro clubs’ uniforms.

But are these affiliations actually delivering an improved soccer experience to the youngsters at our youth clubs? Or are they just a way for those European clubs to get US parents to pay for the privilege of wearing Euro clubs’ jerseys and propagating their brand?

Is the main reason for our US youth clubs to affiliate with a Euro club simply a smart marketing strategy to grow their clubs, generating more revenue, but not necessarily better soccer?

Keep in mind that youth soccer is a business here in our country and youth clubs in our Bay Area are competing for players and resources, including money, fields, and coaches. Click here for a recent article on this topic. And here’s another one on pay-to-play.

Let’s take a look at each of the promised and implied benefits:

Curriculum

Let’s start with asking what a curriculum even is.

Is there a “system”? Does that system include number of days of training, training focus (technical, tactical, physical etc.) by age, a step-by-step progression model a-la Common Core, practice methodologies, workout drills, discipline models by age, a training ethos (# positions per player by age, playing time models by age, etc.).

Or, to be blunt about it, is the ‘curriculum’ just a bunch of drills that any coach or player or parent could just pull from the Internet?

When you’re promised a curriculum, ask your club to explain what that means, what aspects of training it will cover, in detail. And ask to see the curriculum. Many times the answer will be vague and no actual Euro club curriculum will be forthcoming.

ID Programs and Camps

Usually for even more money, your player can attend an ID Program. This is usually an additional practice, run by your club’s normal coaches, using the Euro club “curriculum”, and ostensibly used to “ID” players who might get “promoted” to the next ID Program (costing more money) and ultimately invited to play on a travel team in a tourney in Europe or on a “tour” to the affiliate club.

Often you are just paying for an extra practice with the club’s normal coaches using their standard curriculum. The camps are much of the same, offered to those in the ID Program, and probably more driven by the revenue they can bring the club than any real desire or ability to deliver superior training to your player.

Monthly Calls with Euro Club Coaches

What actionable items are produced from these monthly calls that have a direct effect on the field for your youngster? Or are these calls just to make the affiliate coaches and/or parent board members feel good?

Are European 2nd or 3rd tier youth coaches really that much more insightful (from 5,000 miles away, with no presence on the field) than a well-educated, motivated and experienced US youth coach? And are calls really enough to transfer the know-how that these Euro coaches have?

Annual Visits by Euro Club Coaches

Which coaches are coming? How long are they staying for? Who’s paying for their flight, hotel, rental car and per diem food expenses? What training of either coaches or players are they doing? For how many hours on how many days?

In reality most of these visits are for a week or two at most, by perhaps two second-tier coaches, sometimes in the summer when half the kids are “gone”, and are given to a specific age group or ‘level’ for a few hours during those two weeks.

‘Select Teams’ for Travel Tournaments

These are teams like a “West Coast Girls U15 Euro Club”, made up of players from multiple affiliated youth clubs. The kids are chosen as much for their parents’ willingness and ability to pay as for their soccer credentials.

They will travel to Europe, on the parents dime, to play in a tournament, or go on what’s commonly referred to as a “tour”, where they play a couple of friendly games, visit the stadium and tour some of the local sights.

These are tours that have been organized for years by third party companies for anyone with a team (and the money), but are now advertised directly by the affiliate club.

Are they worthwhile? For sure, as much as they have always been. It’s a holiday to Europe for parents and players, and it’s a way to get your player jazzed about soccer. That’s a genuine choice parents can make, of course.

But does it improve your soccer player? Does it increase your chances of playing for the Euro club? Of course not. What else could you have done with the thousands of dollars you spent (US tournaments, 1-on-1 training, summer camps, etc.) that would have improved your player’s chances of improving their game, getting to play at college, etc.?

The Big Promise

The big carrot often dangled in front of parents and players: players can be chosen to train in Europe with the pro club.

Many parents think their player is better than they really are. Many don’t understand the US Soccer system, think that NorCal Gold or Premier is the pinnacle, don’t know that USSDA exists, don’t know that their kid might be good in their local pond (even in a big pond like LA or Dallas) but is mediocre at best on a global scale.

Do one or two get chosen to go, all expenses covered? Maybe. But that’s after 1 or 2 have been chosen from your club to go to state tryouts, from which 1 or 2 were chosen to go to US tryouts, from which 1 or 2 were chosen to go to Europe. In other words the odds, after spending many thousands of dollars for travel and hotel stays, are miniscule.

For example, Liverpool have been doing this for years in the US, longer than probably any other club, and my understanding is that to date they have only taken 2 boys to Liverpool for a 1 week tryout, and neither progressed beyond that week. This isn’t a criticism of the Euro club (their only goal for their youth academies is elite talent identification after all), but parents needs to be aware of the reality of this.

In summary, these Euro club affiliations make many promises and often deliver on too few of them. There are probably exceptions, but in general the ‘return’ often isn’t good enough to justify the additional cost and inevitable changes at your club. Carefully evaluate your club’s implementation of any affiliation and how that implementation affects specifically your son or daughter.

Think carefully about which players might benefit more than others. For example, do the top 20% benefit because the club now attracts better players, but the bottom 80% get “pushed down” to make space for the new (and better) players but nevertheless have to pay more money every year for uniforms etc.? Consider carefully if and how the promised benefits of an affiliation trickle down to the large majority in your club.

How long will these affiliate programs last? In some cases, only until parents smell the bacon burning in the kitchen. Those affiliated youth clubs that make a much better effort to deliver the benefits to the majority of kids in the club can be successful with this if success is measured by a better soccer experience and education for the 80%.

Even mild childhood concussion linked to lifelong health and social problems

The scientific evidence is mounting: even mild childhood head injuries can increase the risk of low educational attainment, psychiatric hospitalization and early death, according to a highly respected team of scientists from the US, UK, and Sweden.

“Even a single mild traumatic brain injury will predict poor adult functioning.”

-Amir Sariaslan, University of Oxford, UK

To be clear, ‘traumatic brain injury’ sounds like a major head injury to us non-medical parents, coaches, and players, but in the medical world ‘just’ a concussion is considered a traumatic brain injury.

Click here for the just-published scientific paper if you’re interested. And click here for an easier to digest article summarizing some of the findings.

And I also wanted to share the following recent comments published in the New York Times by Dr. Omalu, the forensic pathologist and neuropathologist who first discovered chronic traumatic encephalopathy in American football players. He is featured in the movie Concussion. The last sentence struck me as especially profound so I bolded it.

“Our children are minors who have not reached the age of consent. It is our moral duty as a society to protect the most vulnerable of us. The human brain becomes fully developed at about 18 to 25 years old.

We should at least wait for our children to grow up, be provided with the information and education on the risk of play [in American Football], and let them make their own decisions. No adult, not a parent or a coach, should be allowed to make this potentially life-altering decision for a child.

We have a legal age for drinking alcohol; for joining the military; for voting; for smoking; for driving; and for consenting to have sex. We must have the same when it comes to protecting the organ that defines who we are as human beings.

To be clear, there is a big difference in risks between American Football and soccer. Like probably in any team sport, there are brain injury risks playing soccer, but those are arguably manageable through smart and prudent preventive measures, including heading rules for youngsters and stricter enforcement of challenges on players that risk injury to the brain.

But let’s get ahead of this in soccer. Take the risks of head injuries seriously folks, even mild ones!

Sportsmanship message from NorCal Premier Soccer – unfortunately too easily forgotten as the season unfolds

As we head into the fall season, we would like to encourage players, coaches, family members, club officials, and referees to take a moment to consider how they will behave around their upcoming soccer games. All play an important role in our small piece of the “World’s Game”, all deserve to be treated respectfully.

While we absolutely encourage everyone to give their best effort, trying to win, we also believe a sense of soccer fellowship should be maintained at all times ­among opponents, opposing fans, and referees.

Treat each other with courtesy, remember your opponents are just like you, fans of the game, only in a different uniform, playing for a different club, supporting a different team, or in the case of referees, with a different role to play.

Whatever part you play, be a role model. Set an example. Your positive example is incredibly valuable to those who witness it!

The rules must be respected – they maintain a player’s health and safety, provide everyone a fair chance to win each match, and provide necessary checks and balances to govern a game full of emotions.

Referees must be respected and treated properly ­- without them the games cannot be played. Remember they are sons and daughters, fathers and mothers, grandmothers and grandfathers. They are our fellow soccer fans and they deserve our patience. Our praise, respect and admiration should be shown to them for taking on what is often a thankless task.

Finally, respect the game! Soccer, futebol, fussball, football, whatever you may call it, is the greatest sport in the world – for it to continue to grow and remain healthy in our country it absolutely needs us to respect… its fields, its players, its fans, its referees and its coaches.

Thank you very much,

Norcal Board of Directors

Sydney Leroux: “Parents, chill out!”

Practice explains only a small part of the difference in performance between soccer players

The Washington Post published an interesting article discussing the latest scientific research on the role of ‘practicing’ on performance.

The data shows that deliberate practice accounted for only 18 percent of the variation in performance for a sport like soccer.

In other words, practice is a necessary but not sufficient factor to becoming a top soccer player. Other factors play a much bigger role, including genetics, mental strength and flexibility, the efficiency of a player’s internal biological processes, and luck.

Deliberate practice is important to become the best you can be, but there is going to be a limit to how good you can become based on those other factors.

Your son or daughter will reach his or her ceiling at some point, despite deliberate practice, commitment, good coaching, and full parental support. Manage your expectations accordingly and focus on what really matters: helping him/her enjoy the game for a lifetime and benefit from the life experiences that being part of a team brings, both good and bad. And make the right tradeoff with time spent on academics.

So if your son or daughter becomes, for all practical intents and purposes, the best he/she can be in soccer and does so with a smile while also reaching his/her potential in school then you’ve been successful.

But if the smile is gone then he/she won’t continue playing soccer for much longer, and if school performance is suffering materially then you’re jeopardizing his/her future as an adult. Your son or daughter has a natural ceiling to what he/she can achieve in a sport, unfortunately. Recognize this and make smart decisions.

I’m pasting the entire article below and leave it to you to chew on. Here goes:

Practice makes perfect. It’s a mantra we hear all our lives, from simple refrains in kindergarten to the more nuanced versions that populate self-help books.

It’s everywhere at this year’s Olympic Games in Rio, as athletes credit the long hours they spent working with coaches and trainers for their success. It leads us to believe there’s a chance that each of us could be an Olympian, a concert pianist, or an expert computer programmer — if only we put the work in.

In popular culture, this idea was probably best publicized as Malcolm Gladwell’s “10,000-hour rule,” which says that it takes 10,000 hours of practice to become an expert at any skill.

That rule was in turn loosely based on a 1993 study of accomplished violinists in Berlin, which found that the most accomplished students had spent 10,000 hours practicing by the time they were 20 — far more hours than the less accomplished students had spent practicing.

Gladwell estimated that the Beatles and Bill Gates had also put in 10,000 hours of practice fiddling with guitars and computers, respectively, by the time they went big.

There’s one problem with this idea: Research suggests it isn’t true. Practice is helpful in improving performance in a variety of fields, from athletics to chess. But it plays a surprisingly small role in determining whether people become virtuosos.

One of the most vocal critics of Gladwell’s theory has been David Epstein, a Sports Illustrated writer who critiqued the 10,000-hour rule in his book “The Sports Gene.” Epstein argues that 10,000 hours is just an average and that averages are highly misleading (e.g., a person who takes 20,000 hours to master a skill and someone who takes zero hours will together average out to 10,000).

Epstein insists that biology and genetics determine how long you need to practice to acquire a certain skill. Speaking to Outside magazine, he said, “genetics is continually finding now that one person’s hour of practice isn’t as good as the next person’s hour. Talent isn’t something preceding you trying something, but your biological setup that allows you to benefit more than the next guy.”

New research published earlier this summer in the journal Perspectives on Psychological Science and recently written about in New York Magazine supports Epstein’s argument. 

The researchers performed what’s called a “meta-analysis,” in which they re-examined 52 independent samples of data from other previous studies. That data comprised a pool of athletes who competed at levels varying from local clubs up to the Olympics, some with as little as four hours of practice, and some with as many as 12,839 hours.

The researchers found a positive correlation between practice and performance: Those who had practiced more definitely did better, and athletes at higher levels of the sport had typically spent more time practicing than those lower down the ladder.

But the effect of practice on performance was surprisingly small. They found that deliberate practice accounted for only 18 percent of the variation in sports performance.

Among elite-level performers, those who were competing at a national or international level, the proportion was much lower. Deliberate practice accounted for only 1 percent in the difference in their performance, a statistically insignificant difference from zero.

Practice accounted for more of the variation in performance in what’s called “internally paced sports” — those where the athletes get to determine the timing when the skill is executed.

It explained about 41 percent of the variance in performance in internally paced sports, like the javelin throw, compared to only 17 percent in externally paced sports, like basketball or soccer.

Practice also explained slightly more of the variation in performance in individual sports compared with team sports, in ball sports compared with non-ball sports, and in “closed skill” sports (where the environment is stable and predictable, like archery) vs. “open skill” sports (where the environment is dynamic, such as receiving and passing a puck in hockey).

The analysis also showed that athletes who reached the upper levels of their events did not begin practicing their sport at an earlier age than lower skill athletes did. Some have argued that starting to play a sport very young gives athletes an advantage, in part because they have many more years to train.

But the researchers found that the mean starting difference in age for different sports between high skilled and low skilled athletes was only 5.6 weeks.

The collective data suggested that a whopping 82 percent of the variation in performance was due to factors other than practice. So what were they?

While some of that figure might just be due to measurement error, the researchers say a large part is probably due to biology and genetics.

Some people’s maximum oxygen uptake will increase sharply with training, for example, making them particularly suited to athletics. 

Other people may have more ability to gain muscle mass or better motor control. Others may benefit from certain psychological traits, like confidence, a lack of performance anxiety, a high level of focus or a fast perceptual speed.

This is not to say that we should get rid of practicing altogether. Especially if you’re a beginner, practice is important. But for most people, practice won’t bring you anywhere near perfection.

One club’s view on parent refereeing: “a paid job”

First off, to avoid any misunderstand, this post is NOT meant to point a finger at a specific club or individuals at that club. The decision makers at this club were acting without malice in what they considered to be reasonable and in the best interest of their club. So the intention of this post is only to help ‘educate’ our youth soccer community, including decision makers at clubs (and leagues), triggered by an actual situation I encountered with one of the big clubs in our area.

One of my kids plays for one of the well-known clubs in the Bay Area and this club collects an additional $100 per player every season that parents can earn back through six hours of volunteering during the season. Any money left over at the end of the season is automatically donated to the club.

Volunteer tasks include activities such as lining a field or manning a tournament booth or helping to sell club spirit wear during a club event.

As you might know, I am a fully certified USSF referee and try my best to officiate as many youth games as I can every weekend to help our Bay Area soccer community, including many games for this specific club.

You probably already know that there is a big shortage of referees, but if you don’t then please take a moment to read this before continuing.

To my surprise, when I submitted my refereeing to this club as my volunteering contribution to claim the $100 back at the end of last season, I was told that this club doesn’t consider refereeing ‘volunteering’ because it is compensated.

The ironic thing is that in response to this same club’s request for parents to consider becoming certified referees “to help make sure games can happen” some years ago, I volunteered to become one.

And every six months or so this club’s referee coordinator sends out an email to all families asking for help officiating and the details of the next entry-level referee course. And, partly in response to this club’s recent shout-out, two of my kids are also now certified referees and volunteer their time on weekends in addition to their own soccer games.

Before I continue, let me emphasize that this is not about the $100. I am fortunate enough not to have to worry about the $100. Instead, it’s about the principle of this policy and the message that it is sending.

Also, let me be clear one more time that I don’t think this club is in any way ‘against’ referees. The club leadership and Board members are good people that want their club and kids to succeed. I have to assume that the majority on the club’s Board simply don’t understand what’s involved in becoming a referee and then officiating every weekend.

I am going to first talk about money, then my non-monetary commitments, and, finally, I will describe arguably the single most important and hidden volunteer contribution that goes along with a parent referee.

The club is correct that referees do get some compensation for games. It’s anywhere from $25 to $55 per game, depending on factors such as whether you’re the CR or AR, the age group, duration of the game, and level of play (e.g. CYSA league game or NPL or ECNL etc.).

So, for example, if I’m the AR for a 50-minute U8 CYSA game then I get $25. And if I’m the CR for a 90-minute U18 ECNL game then I get $55.

The total time commitment for the U8 game is around 2 hours and around 3 hours for the U18 game, when adding halftime (around 10 minutes), pre-game set-up and team check-in (we try to arrive 30 minutes prior to kick-off, but it’s often only 15 to 20 minutes because we’re rushing over from another game), post-game handshakes and paperwork etc. (10 minutes), and then, say, 30 to 60 minutes driving to and from the field. Sometimes we have back-to-back games at the same field so that saves us one leg of the drive.

So that’s $12.50 per hour for a typical U8 game and $18 per hour for a typical U18 game.

But that’s before deducting expenses!

Deduct from this the cost of fuel plus an allocation for wear and tear for my car. This wear and tear includes factors such as added mileage and the effects of usage on parts, tires, brakes, fluids etc. The IRS calculates the fully loaded cost for this to be $0.54 per mile. I drive an average of 10 miles one way to a game so that’s around $10 just for car usage.

Also deduct from the compensation the cost of additional food and drinks that I often grab on-the-go while driving from one game to the next. A per-game allocation of, say, $5 for extra food and a Peets coffee (to get my tired mind and body caffeinated for the fourth game under the sun that day) that I would not have bought if I wasn’t refereeing, and we’re looking at a total per-game cost of between $10 and $15.

And then there’s the cost for annual USSF certification and membership in the referees association, plus the cost for my equipment, which I estimate to be around $500 to $750. And I’m about to spend another round of money on equipment because USSF is introducing new referee uniforms.

I’m probably missing a couple of cost items, but I hope this gives you some insight into the expense side of refereeing. Nevertheless, a referee can come out ahead if he/she officiates enough games and thus covers his/her fixed cost.

Now, I’m fortunate enough not to have to worry about ‘coming out ahead’. Any money I ‘earn’ over and above my cost makes zero contribution to my family’s standard of living. And I can say with 99% certainty that the same applies to any parent at that club who decides to help out by becoming a referee. You would agree with me if you knew which club it was and the neighborhoods the families live in.

Next, let’s focus on the non-monetary aspects of what I do. It’s easiest to simply run a list:

  • 4 to 6 games per weekend (sometimes no games if I’m taking my daughter or son to an overnight tournament, and sometimes more if needed, especially during local tournaments) – a total of 10 to 20 hours per weekend and probably 200 to 300 hours per typical season;
  • I jump into games on short notice and drop whatever else I was planning to do with my kids or wife when I get an urgent email or call asking me to help out because a game is short referees or a referee fell ill;
  • I attend, on my own time and cost, referee association meetings to discuss and learn about becoming a better referee;
  • I attend, on my own time and cost, quarterly referee training seminars to become a better referee;
  • I read, on my own time and cost, articles on refereeing and study case studies on a daily/weekly basis to become a better referee;
  • I mentor, on my own time, new/young referees when asked by assignors;
  • I write, on my own time, about refereeing on this blog to help educate our soccer community here in the Bay Area;
  • I encouraged my two oldest kids to become referees, helped train them, often discuss refereeing decisions and the laws of the game with them, and take them to their games so we have new young referees to fill the shoes of those aging out;
  • I am studying, on my own time, the recently updated Laws of the Game – the biggest revamp of the laws in the history of the game;

I could go on.

Now let’s get to the typically overlooked yet most critical volunteer contribution of all. And this volunteer contribution gets zero recognition. At least a referee can get some personal satisfaction from officiating a game.

This critical volunteer contribution comes from my wife. She sacrifices her time every weekend to enable me (and my kids) to help out with officiating so that games can take place.

My wife puts up with all of this. Who takes care of the kids when I’m gone for the day or even weekend helping make sure youth games can happen? My wife. Who adjusts her schedule when I get an urgent call to help out with game? My wife. And who takes our kids to their games if those overlap with my officiating? My wife.

And my wife earns zero compensation and recognition for this volunteering. In fact, it is often a source of considerable stress in our family.

And, finally, at the end of an especially long weekend officiating, my body and mind are exhausted. I often have no energy to go out on a Saturday or Sunday evening, and Monday then becomes my recovery day – guess how productive my workday is on some Mondays?

I don’t like to talk about this. I’m not into self-promotion. I’m not looking for a pat on the back. I do all this for a passion for the beautiful game and to help the kids in our Bay Area soccer community. For futbol…and a smile on the kids’ faces.

Yes, there are often many negative emotions during and after games as you can imagine, dear parents and coaches ;-), but, on balance, the positives of refereeing outweigh the negatives for me.

I couldn’t care less for any ‘compensation’ and I couldn’t care less for the $100 donation for this club. This isn’t about the money. And the same applies to practically any other parent referee.

But what I do care about is that refereeing by parents is viewed as a ‘paid job’. At a minimum, it completely ignores the very real sacrifices of the referee’s spouse.

I simply can’t see how a referee family’s contribution to our youth soccer community, including a specific club’s community, is worth less than spending a handful of hours manning a booth.

I strongly urge clubs to respect and recognize the contributions of parent referee families to our soccer community.

Anyway, I hope this is a useful perspective on parent refereeing that is probably not fully understood in our youth soccer community.

For futbol, for the kids!

If you love your child read this

Please consider sharing this with family, friends, and coaches.

Brown University scientists have captured in real-time video (see below) what happens to a brain cell after experiencing a significant impact on the brain. And, crucially, it’s not just the hard concussion-causing blows that cause permanent brain damage.

When the brain was hit with a slower blow, “the cells gradually retract all their connections to the surrounding networks and sort of silently shut down. What is striking to us is that within the first four to five hours, the brain cells look healthy, and you think everything is OK.

Then you see the cells changing, and then they start to change rapidly and degenerate, and they’re dead within a few hours. [the below clip shows that clearly]

The reason why there is a delay is because it’s a chemical process that plays out inside the cell. There are certain enzymes that, once they become activated, start to chop down the cell from the inside out.” Christian Franck, Assistant Professor at Brown University

So what does this mean for soccer? Well, for one, I believe that we need to err on the side of caution and prevent youngsters from heading balls until they are, say, 14 or older. Coaches and referees also need to be much more vigilant about head injuries.

CYSA now bans heading for all U13 and below games and NorCal for all U11 and below. This is a very good step, of course, but my personal preference is to see this extended to U14 across the nation.

By the way, even medical professionals and scientists don’t yet know what an acceptable number and type of blows to the head should be. Research is underway, but it will take many years. But I just look at the fragile floating brain in our skull in the clip below and just can’t help but feel that we’re not cautious enough.

And what does this mean for American Football? Pull your child out immediately. You are causing lasting long-term brain damage to your child and there is no way to repair that damage. I simply can’t see how American Football can be modified to make it safe.

There is nothing more precious than our brains and especially a child’s developing brain. For some reason, as a society, we are prone to ignore the health of our brains and just assume that the brain keeps working as designed. And we don’t seem to understand that many brain injuries cause devastating effects only years or even decades later.

But why should we treat the brain with any less care than other body parts? If you knew that a certain type of activity causes repetitive micro-fractures in your legs’ bones and eventually complete lifetime loss of use of your legs, would you continue to encourage your child to perform that activity?

So why would you do this for activities that damage the brain and lead to lifetime impairment and possibly even early death? It doesn’t make sense!

Take this seriously folks!

For more background, please see below for an overview of how impact head injuries occur and click here for a CNN clip on the impact of concussions in soccer.

 

Fun, freedom and focus – essential for peak performance

I came across an article in GoalNation about a sports psychologist who works with players and clubs in the English Premier League. He describes the following three key attributes of a top-performing player’s state of mind:

I want every player, no matter their level, no matter their age, to play with fun. 

Excellence starts with fun. A man-of-the-match performance starts with a fun mindset. Being determined and being disciplined starts with a mind attuned to having fun on the pitch. So aim to go have fun.

Fun is a building block to playing with freedom – without tension, worry and doubt.

What does playing with freedom look like to you? What does it feel like?

I hope your coach gives you permission to play with freedom – when I say freedom I mean two things.

Firstly, I mean being on your toes, being ready for the next play, being sharp, alert, alive and lively. I mean not weighed down by the burden of fear.

Secondly, I mean being given permission to make mistakes. All soccer players make mistakes – even Ronaldo, even Messi.

If your coach hasn’t mentioned this then I ask you to give yourself permission to make mistakes. Because when you do (and it’s a case of when rather than if), you will have a mindset to simply carry on.

Free players carry on no matter what happens. They don’t dwell on a past mistake. They don’t dwell on going a goal down. They play with fun and freedom.

Of course you need to be focused as well. A great competitor is focused on each play at hand. Having fun and being free gives you a great platform to play with focus.

I want you to pick one or two things you can focus on accomplishing during the game. Make these things controllable. For example, “complete my passes” isn’t controllable. “keeping great body language no matter what” is controllable.

Massive waste of talent because of pay-to-play

This is probably one of the most important blog posts I’ve written, triggered by an excellent article in The Guardian a couple of weeks ago: “It’s only working for the white kids: American soccer’s diversity problem.”

Here’s a quote from that article to summarize its key point:

“Well-to-do families spend thousands of dollars a year on soccer clubs that propel their children to the sport’s highest levels, while thousands of gifted athletes in mostly African American and Latino neighborhoods get left behind. Soccer is the world’s great democratic game, whose best stars have come from the world’s slums, ghettos and favelas. And yet in the US the path to the top is often determined by how many zeroes a parent can write in their checkbook.”

We probably all agree that soccer in our country is expensive. I posted on this topic a couple of weeks ago – click here to read about the cost of competitive youth soccer.

And the higher the quality of coaching and the higher ranked a team is, the higher the cost, partly because of considerable in-state and then out-of-state travel. Talk to someone who’s son or daughter plays on one of the Development Academy or ECNL teams to learn more. But even the second and third teams at the bigger clubs are expensive and travel quite a bit.

To be very clear, I am not saying that soccer clubs are doing anything ‘wrong’ in terms of the fees they charge. And some try to make needs-based scholarships available to talented players and organize fundraisers.

It’s simple – the bills have to be paid by someone and in our private market called ‘youth soccer’ it’s the parents, of course. And there are also many indirect cost to consider beyond just the direct cost such as club fees. To quote from the article:

“Scholarships often cover the cost of the league but little else. They don’t provide transportation for the player whose parents might work during practice, or don’t have enough money for gas to drive to games. Some families don’t have email and can’t get the club announcements. Resentment builds.

“The parents will say to scholarship kids – and I have seen this countless times – ‘Why did you miss the game on Saturday? We are paying for you to be here,’” Lusson says. “What does a kid say to that? Or what happens if they are late to practice? Or who is going to pay for them to travel to that tournament in San Diego? That’s like the moon to some of these kids. We have kids here in the East Bay who have never seen the beach.”

They drop out and drift away and we lose them and that’s terrible because they were really, really talented.”

The other key point this article makes is that some of the best soccer is actually played in the ‘ligas Latinos’. Click here for an article I came across describing one of those ligas.

I have refereed countless games across all age groups and levels, and see the difference between teams from Latino neighborhoods across NorCal and teams from middle-class and well-to-do neighborhoods.

These relatively well-off teams tend to be more disciplined and ‘solid’ throughout, and often also consistently fitter, but seem to lack that extra level of soccer understanding, technical skill, and creativity that many of the Latino teams have.

As a rule of thumb I see better individual talent on Latino teams, often much better.

It’s a level of play you only reach if you grow up playing street soccer pretty much every day at school and in your neighborhood, and are surrounded by a futbol culture that encourages skills and creativity, and draws you into watching international soccer games on a daily/weekly basis.

You can’t get this from just going to structured team practices three times a week that the kids from middle-class and well-to-do neighborhoods typically pay their club fees for.

They tend not to have time for more soccer anyway – there are other extracurricular activities that help them grow into ‘well-balanced individuals’ and strengthen their college applications.

Throw in extra tutoring to do well in school and a busy social life too, of course. Most don’t even have time nor interest to watch top international games on a weekly basis.

To be clear, there is nothing wrong with these priorities, of course. It’s a smart approach for these kids given that practically none of them are aiming to turn pro, but it should be clear to everyone that these youngsters can never reach the elite level.

Yet our player development system is supporting them as though they will and ignores those that actually have a realistic chance to join the elite.

And then we also have the college system that distorts the discovery and development of true top talent. The well-to-do teams travel to college showcases and have the grades to get into college, especially the top college programs (with the better facilities and coaches typically, because those pay best).

For many (and probably all top) clubs the college placement rate is a key selling point so their programming is at least partially influenced by what colleges are looking for.

And I don’t blame the clubs for that. They are simply operating within the system. Why should coaches that dedicate their professional lives to the game not maximize their financial return, like you and me?

Being a martyr for a cause is easy to say, but impossible to do when you have to make a living, support a family, and save for retirement. And that coach will be remembered by very few for ‘fighting the good fight’.

Truly talented underprivileged kids, that are never seen at these college ‘showcases’ because they simply can’t ‘pay to play’ nor have the grades because they had to help support their families, simply vanish.

And that’s a massive loss for our country, not just in terms of becoming World Cup contenders at some point, but also in terms of making our MLS games more entertaining.

Entertainment is the lifeblood of soccer (and any sport). The better the entertainment, which is a direct result of talented players, the more money will flow into soccer. It’s a virtuous cycle.

In my view, the USA game against Colombia (Fifa Rank #4) in the Copa America two weeks ago made all this painfully visible. It’s not so much the fact that we lost, but rather how we played.

Yes, we won the next three games against Costa Rica, Paraguay, and Ecuador, mostly because we simply played with more heart and energy and against much lower ranked teams than Columbia, but there simply is no player or coach in our country who can credibly compete in the top 10 internationally. Period. We rank 29th, by the way.

Watch the USA v Columbia game again and then the Argentina v Chile game. And finally watch the 0:4 semifinal loss against an Argentinian side that was playing at only about 50-75% of what they are capable of.

Quoting an analyst (with some edits for clarity and brevity), “we had just 32 percent of possession, our midfield lost the ball quickly, we had zero shots (not zero shots on goals – zero shots total), and we were out-played in every way possible. It’s not so much that the U.S. got beaten as it was that they weren’t even in the game.”

We battled and never gave up, but the difference in class along pretty much any soccer dimension, individual and team, was obvious.

That’s the chasm we need to cross and we won’t be successful until we’ve figured out how to discover and then nurture truly our best and most passionate futbol talent wherever it might be.

There is no easy solution to this pay-to-play problem, but I strongly suspect that the only feasible way to truly discover and develop our best soccer talent is to have at least some type of large central funding source with aligned incentives that can support a broad scouting net and then pay for a very large number of youngsters’ development.

U.S. Soccer will have to own this – government funding won’t be available for this. Many other countries, including soccer powerhouses such as Germany and Spain, provide taxpayer funded government support (sometimes a lot and even the entire cost), but we don’t operate like that here.

In addition, clubs that develop talent need to be compensated by the pro clubs for that development. Right now the bigger clubs, especially those with USDA and ECNL status simply suck up the talent that was developed by smaller clubs.

And then the MLS clubs in turn mop up the top talent without owing one of the lesser clubs anything for their player development work.

Here’s an article that describes that well. This article also describes how tough it is to make a decent living running most youth soccer clubs.

And once you have a system in place to identify the best talent how do you then best develop them? Insert them into the existing youth clubs (with external funding support) or maybe have a centrally organized system of development through US Soccer?

It’s relatively easy once you’ve identified those that are truly elite – they can join one of the fully paid USDA teams at one of our MLS clubs, but there’s the millions of 5 to 12 year old underprivileged kids that need to be nurtured. Or at least a good portion of them.

It’s the only way to identify the diamonds in the rough and an important part of the changes we need to eventually be able to help fulfill the enormous potential of this massive, sports-obsessed, and wealthy country of ours. We have no excuse!

By the way, click here if you’re interested in some wealth distribution data. This Forbes article is just one source – there are many and they all tell the same story.

P.S.: And then we have to make sure that creative talent isn’t suffocated by shallow, risk-averse coaching that suppresses this creativity, but that’s another topic for another day. If you’re interested, I’ve shared my views on this many times including here, here, and here.

Disgraceful parental behavior during little girls game

I had a mind-boggling refereeing experience on Sunday. It was a U10G Bronze game and we kicked off at 6pm on the last day of the Spring season. It was Sunday evening and nice weather.

So after a long soccer weekend I was expecting a pleasant game between little nine year old girls. A celebration of the beautiful game and a fun experience for these little girls.

Well, I couldn’t have been more wrong.

I have rarely experienced such a rowdy sideline. Pretty much the entire game was played under constant screaming and shouting at the girls, and frequent dissent about pretty much every call that went against the visiting team, including in particular offside and ‘handball’.

When the visiting team dissent became too blatant and interfered with officiating I stopped the game to talk to the parents. I tried to explain that a ball touching a hand or arm is not in itself an infraction – it has to be deliberate, for example. And frankly, dear reader, referees are supposed to be much more lenient when Bronze level nine year olds play the game.

In a final attempt to try to take the edge off their behavior I reminded the coach and parents that these are just nine year old girls trying to have fun playing a game.

It didn’t work. These parents were not interested in reason and were in a combative mood from the beginning. Textbook case.

So when the dissent continued I had no choice but to evict a parent and then ten minutes into the second half warned the coach that I will terminate the game if there’s any further interference. This coach then called to his parents to calm down, but otherwise made no effort to control his parents during the game.

And the tension between the opposing parents was palpable, especially during the second half. It included excessive celebration when a goal was scored.

What made this situation worse is that the AR on the sideline next to those parents was only 12 years old. He did a very good job under a lot of pressure, but the parents used abusive language directed also at him.

He had to listen to an ongoing use of foul language including repeat use of the F-word amongst the parents directed at me and at times also him. He was scared especially about parents throwing things at him because he had to face his back to watch the field.

Unfortunately, he didn’t tell me until after the game, partly because most of that happened during the second half. But all this went into my incident report to NorCal so the team will face disciplinary action.

And the icing on the cake: I was threatened by the evicted parent and confronted after the game as I was walking to my car.

Glad to say that I stayed calm throughout all of this and it didn’t change my motivation to contribute to our soccer community through officiating. But it was a sad moment because these little girls are exposed to this and probably often.

The ironic thing was that just before this little girls game I had officiated a U16 boys game that I was warned could easily escalate. One of the teams got into a fight during a game in SF and already had two suspended players. One of the coaches was also suspended, but turned up. He was evicted. The league had sent an official to observe and help in case of mass confrontations.

All went well, I had full control of the game, and it ended successfully without drama. So I drove over to the little girls game to finish off the Spring season on a lighter note, but little did I know.

This kind of disgraceful behavior has no place in youth sports. It is a terrible experience for these little kids and for those moms, dads, siblings, and grandparents that came to simply cheer.

And you can probably imagine that the twelve year old AR might lose motivation to help officiate games if this happens too often. And we need young referees to fill the shoes of those aging out. No referees, no games.

By the way, this visiting team places last in the Bronze division with only one point. This makes them the lowest ranked U10G team in all of NorCal. Probably no coincidence.

Let’s talk about money – lots of it!

It’s the end of the Spring season and some clubs are already asking for commitments for the Fall season. So it’s that time of year when parents are reminded again about the cost of youth soccer.

Competitive soccer is expensive, especially if your youngster plays on the top couple of teams in his/her age group at his club. And this cost increases as your youngster gets older.

According to my Quicken software we spent about $20,000 (no typo!) on soccer related cost in 2015 on our three comp soccer kids (U10, U12, and U14), excluding a big soccer-related trip we did during the Christmas school break. And some time ago I posted an article on another family’s similar spending level – click here to read it.

As a rule of thumb, I estimate that at one of the big clubs here in the Bay Area you can expect to pay around $2K-$3K per year when your youngster is 8 or 9, then around $3K-$4K when he/she is 10/11, and $5K-$7K at 12/13. It can easily reach $10K per year or more if your 16 year old daughter or son is on an ECNL or USDA team. Both travel a lot.

This is a lot of money! And a lot of parents get upset, of course. And some point the finger specifically at coaching fees. I will get to coaching fees a little later in this post.

First let’s take a step back for a moment and start with what many, probably most, parents want for their comp soccer youngsters:

  • great coach who really knows the game and how to teach it, fully committed to making youngsters the best they can be, in a positive environment, while also communicating frequently with parents;
  • good fields for practices and games, ideally all-weather artificial turf instead of bumpy and/or muddy grass;
  • quality equipment (balls, training accessories, etc.);
  • supplemental private or small-group clinics through the year;
  • variety of league games that develop the youngster and entertain the parents;
  • tournaments for that extra drama and team bonding – some medals hopefully too;
  • well-organized club – efficient software for registrations, effective and timely communications, sufficient oversight by the Director of Coaching to make sure coaches are doing their job well, ongoing development courses for coaches, both in-house and, probably more importantly, externally organized for a fresh perspective;
  • for well-developing youngsters a structured/organized path to higher-level teams within each age group, more challenging leagues such as ECNL and DA, and more challenging tournaments (local, region, state, national);
  • efficient and effective league and tournament organization;
  • qualified referees – while this is mostly a volunteer role referees do get paid some to cover their cost and to earn a little on top

The list goes on.

Now let’s be clear that all this costs money. Somebody has to pay for all this and because there are no subsidies for what is ultimate a private enterprise it’s the families that have to cover all of the cost (some clubs offer merit and/or needs-based scholarships but those are negligible).

It’s simple math.

And like all private market products and services this ‘youth comp soccer’ service we purchase from clubs and leagues (and individual coaches sometimes) is driven by the perceived quality of the service and the availability and cost of alternatives (i.e. other clubs/coaches and non-soccer activities).

Money is a medium of exchange and cost/prices reflect ‘value’ driven (mostly) by demand and supply. And there are apparently enough families that are willing to pay the going rate.

Are there imperfections in this youth soccer market? Sure, like in pretty much any market, and discussing those go beyond the scope of this post. But, for all practical intents and purposes, families have a choice how much and where to spend their soccer money.

Now let’s talk about the coaching pay.

Keep in mind that for the majority of comp soccer coaches at the bigger clubs this is often their livelihood or at least contributes materially to their income. It’s how they put food on the table and pay for their kids’ clothes. It’s how they pay for rent. It’s how they cover their cost of living. And our Bay Area has one of the highest cost of living in the country.

I estimate that typical comp soccer coaches make anywhere from $20K to $50K per year, depending on how many teams they coach per season, how experienced they are, which club they coach for, and how many private lessons they do per week.

And I further estimate that top coaches with a good amount of teams and maybe also some club-level responsibilities can earn up to $100K, even $200K at the very top. Some of this additional pay comes from offering clinics outside the usual team practices and and elite coaches can charge $50 (and more) per player per hour for a small-group clinic with, say, four players. That’s $200+ per hour.

But let’s focus on the ~80% of coaches that coach most of our kids.

Living on $20K in the Bay Area is very difficult even when you’re young and single. It’s not much better with $50K. And it’s even difficult with $75K-$100K if the coach has a family.

Great coaches that work hard and are committed and/or have broader responsibilites such as Director of Coaching roles deserve to be compensated for the work they do. Just like in any other profession.

There are some volunteer coaches that do a fine job, of course. I know of one team that is still keeping up with wins and rankings with the elite group of teams in that age group and the coach is a volunteer. The players aren’t nearly as proficient because they lack the technical skills, for example, but this volunteer coach knows how to maximize the odds of winning. So there are exceptions to the rule, of course, if winning is your primary goal.

But if longer-term player development, quality, efficiency, sustainability, and scalability are important then comp soccer needs professional coaches and clubs.

But like any business a soccer club (and also individual coaches) have to continue to offer the best possible product and strive to continuously improve and innovate to satisfy its ‘customers’, the players and families. If the quality drops too low and/or the club doesn’t handle its families and players professionally then the club will sooner or later lose its customers.

So if the product offered by the club and/or coach is perceived to be superior and families are willing to pay for it, then why should the club and/or coach not be ‘allowed’ to make as much money as possible?

Why should this be any different from, say, a financial consultant charging as high an hourly rate as possible for his or her services? Or the cleaning lady trying to negotiate the highest possible hourly rate for her services? Or you and me negotiating the highest possible salary and bonus in our professional lives?

If what you do is valued highly and someone offers you double or triple what you’re getting now and you can therefore buy that four bedroom modern house in a neighborhood with great schools then why not charge for your services?

Money is a reflection of the value you deliver. There’s nothing bad or dirty or questionable about that.

There are non-monetary measures of ‘value’, of course, and those are important motivators in some professions, but money is a strong indicator of delivered value in private markets, including youth soccer.

You have to continue to deliver a great work product, of course. If you don’t then the payments will stop quite quickly because parents will go elsewhere for a better product.

Like with all purchasing decisions, families need to make a decision about what’s important and affordable for them.

If a club’s activities are simply too costly and your youngster isn’t talented enough then you need to find another club. Or move your son/daughter down to a lower team that doesn’t train as much and only plays games within driving distance. The cost for this second or third team should be lower. Don’t waste your money!

For example, the annual cost to play on an ECNL team is much higher than the cost for the second or third team. This is mostly because the ECNL team travels much more.

So take a step back and honestly assess your youngster’s soccer potential and decide on what’s important to your youngster and your family.

A good friend of mine with tremendous knowledge of competitive sports, including soccer, keeps reminding me of how delusional we as parents can be. Here’s a good blog post on DPD – Delusional Parent Disorder. Love the term!

If your youngster isn’t heading for an ECNL team (girls) or an USDA team (boys) then don’t waste your hard earned money chasing the wrong goal. The same applies for any other level of play – if he/she simply isn’t going to make the first or second or third team then stop chasing that with money and sacrificed time.

Instead, focus on having a great time at soccer together. Make sure your son/daughter learns to enjoy the game for a lifetime. He/she doesn’t have to play on the ‘best’ team or club for that to happen. And it doesn’t have to be expensive.

But it’s ultimately your choice in this private market called “youth soccer”.

P.S.: There are very problematic issues arising from this ‘pay-to-play’ market model we have here in our country, which exceeds the scope of this blog post. I will post separately on that in a few days. Stay tuned.

 

Creativity is intelligence having fun

This headline quote is from Albert Einstein. You probably know by now that I believe in the importance of teaching, encouraging, and celebrating creativity of play in our youngsters. I firmly believe that our youngsters need as large a problem-solving toolkit as possible.

Well, here’s another reason to foster creativity: our kids need to be able to express themselves creatively on the field otherwise they will sooner or later lose interest in this beautiful game.

Soccer is played and enjoyed as much with the brain as it is with the body.

The more we enforce rigid systems of play and ‘simple’ risk-averse behavior the more likely it is that we will lose our youngsters to boredom.

When they are younger they are more heavily influenced by external factors such as parental expectations and the social aspect. They are more likely to go along with whatever the coaches (and parents) want them to do, irrespective of how challenged they might feel mentally.

But this changes rapidly as they become more independent as teenagers. The risk of losing interest increases as they get older because they increasingly have to be self-motivated to put the time and effort into practicing multiple times a week and competing on weekends.

If youngsters aren’t having fun they will sooner or later stop playing the game. It’s as simple as that.

So by not encouraging creativity from an early age we end up with players that can’t compete internationally, a much less entertaining experience for spectators, and a much smaller pool of youngsters that stick with the game.

What is creativity in soccer?

Creativity is used a lot to describe the better soccer players. And many of us probably recognize it when we see it during a youth or pro game. I have posted many times about the importance of encouraging creativity in our youngsters, most recently an article on the lack of top midfielders in our country and a post about risk-averse defenders.

The impact of creativity cannot be underestimated. It massively impacts the quality and entertainment of every soccer game across all age groups and levels. It’s as relevant for lower-level U9 games as it is for elite pro games.

And a lack of creativity isn’t just an issue here in our country. For example, it’s arguably the single biggest reason for England’s relative underperformance on the international stage (and until recently, but to a lesser extent, also in the country where I grew up, Germany) and why the English Premier League is so dominated by elite foreign players. (English teams have the resources to buy talent from all over the world because more than in any other country England focused heavily on the business of sports these last two decades. So the English clubs and the League are doing well, but not the English national team.)

According to one English youth soccer coach: “So many England internationals from the past 30 years have grown to become more functional than creative, and the fact that I have to hark back to players like Hoddle and Gascoigne to remember truly creative, unpredictable, England players is a concern for English football. This rigid, predictable footballer is a product of the coaching they received when they were young.”

But what is ‘creativity’? More technical elements such as dribbling or super skills? Or more team-based elements such as pass-and-move patterns? Or something else?

Before I suggest a definition of ‘creativity’ let’s take a step back and read this excerpt from a recent article on how U.S. Soccer is attempting to improve coaching quality (slightly edited for clarity and brevity; blue font is my emphasis):

“Soccer is a player’s game. The 22 people knocking a ball around a big field are bound by few rules. Predictable patterns rarely occur. As a result, coaches can’t succeed by designing plays and ordering players to execute them, as they can in, say, football. Players have to make judgment calls in the moment, on their own.

This means that rote skills, while essential, are not in themselves adequate. The thing that makes better players is decision making. They need to integrate not just how to do something but whether, when, and why. There are parallels to the difficulty many students have solving problems independently. If you give kids a math problem and tell them how to solve it they can usually do it. But if you give them a problem and it’s not clear how to solve it, they struggle.

Jürgen Klinsmann, a former German world soccer star, World Cup winner, coach of the German National Team, and currently coach of our U.S. men’s team, has remarked that it’s hard to get Americans to see that a soccer coach cannot be “the decision maker on the field,” but should instead be a guide. “This is a very different approach. I tell them, ‘No, you’re not making the decision. The decision is made by the kid on the field.’ ”

Outside the U.S., most soccer players learn to play independently very early on.  We don’t have a lot of unstructured play where kids can develop creativity. It’s a lot of tournaments and pressure and sideline parents and trophies.”

So with that background in mind let’s turn back to ‘creativity’. When you break down a soccer game into its smallest, most fundamental elements it comes down to this:

Players are faced with an endless series of problem-solving micro-moments during games.

These micro-moments could last anywhere from a split-second (for example, controlling the ball in very tight spaces or a goalkeeper reacting to a sudden shot on goal) to a handful of seconds (for example, a midfielder moving with the ball looking for passing options).

Some of these micro-moments repeat themselves over time and youngsters simply learn from experience what to do in those moments.

But many of these micro-moments are new or different and force a player to make immediate decisions about how to solve them. And as the standard of play increases the player has to use increasingly creative ways to deal with these micro-moments.

For example, simply physically shielding the ball against a physically inferior and ‘simpler’ player won’t work against clever/crafty players (physically inferior or not) because they know how to fake you out and poke the ball away. Or clever players know how to use teamwork to double up on you and take the ball away.

Another example is that athletic youngsters can have much success simply touching the ball into space past a defender and then sprinting past them toward goal, especially when they are younger and/or playing against inferior players.

That’s certainly one way to repeatedly solve those how-do-I-get-past-a-defender micro-problems. But this won’t work anymore when matched up against athletic defenders and a defensive team working well together to cover each other. So now what? Is this athletic youngster able to get past the defenders other than through speed and/or physicality?

Often ‘unpredictability’ goes hand in hand with creativity. In general, the more unpredictable the way the micro-problem is solved the more likely it is that he or she will outfox the opponent and succeed.

And, just as important for the longer-term growth of the game in our country, the more entertaining it is to watch the game across all levels and age groups.

And what does a youngster need to creatively solve those micro-problems?

  1. Soccer IQ – a fundamental understanding of the game, including the relationship between the ball, the players, space and movement;
  2. Large toolkit – broad and deep technical skills, ball control and touch, accurate passing, ability to shoot, ambidexterity, off-the-ball movement, etc.
  3. Mental agility – is the youngster constantly paying attention and reading the game, processing split-second decisions, coming up with clever solutions, imagining a couple of moves ahead;
  4. Confidence – especially with the ball in tight, pressured situations in your own defensive third; does he or she have the confidence to do the unexpected and experiment with new solutions or is he or she worried about making mistakes?

So ‘creativity’ is not just one thing. It’s not just dribbling skills or accurate passing movements or sprinting or great shots on goal. It’s all of the above (and more) applied at the right moments to solve the endless series of often unpredictable micro-problems players face during games.

And the earlier and more often our youngsters attempt to solve those problems creatively the sooner their conscious thought (which is measured in seconds) becomes instinct (which is measured in a second or less), further speeding up and improving the quality of their game.

And it’s the coach’s job to help his youngsters develop as large a toolkit as possible and the positive mental attitude to become smarter, more creative players over time even if that means losing many more games.

Encourage that eight, nine, or ten year old defender to dribble past an attacker even if your team is more likely to lose possession.

Celebrate the attempted Maradona move by the midfielder even if a simpler touch past the opponent would have had a higher chance of working.

Applaud your speedy attacker for working with his teammate on a series of two or three wall-passes instead of simply using his or her speed to leave that obviously slower defender in the dust.

Admire a beautiful sequence of one-touch passing movements even if two touches would have retained possession for longer.

The list is endless.

For the good of this beautiful game, coaches and parents, please teach, encourage, and celebrate creative problem solving across all age groups and levels. Coaches will develop better players, parents will be more entertained during games, and our youngsters will enjoy playing more and for longer.

And then one day in the not too distant future we will bring the World Cup trophy to our country.

How do you respond?

You are watching your son’s or daughter’s soccer game. Another parent arrives late, sits down next to you, and asks “How are we doing?”.

How do you respond?

Here’s how I responded on Sunday during my daughter’s U14 game: “Good! We’re up 2:0 already.” And I think this has been my response every single time these last ~five years.

Response from the other parent: “Great! Who scored the goals?”.

It is so deeply ingrained in us – it’s almost a reflex to respond with the score.

But, hold on. Why are we focusing on ‘winning’? This isn’t a pro game where every result matters. This isn’t a World Cup Semifinal.

And why does it matter who scored the goals? Often the genius isn’t in the final kick into goal, it’s the actions of the player making that final pass or a sequence of dribbling and passing between three of four players before the final kick into goal.

Ironically, five minutes before this I had a conversation with another dad about the overemphasis on ‘winning’.

This dad suggested that leagues should consider not recording results and stop ranking teams.

We discussed that the focus should be purely on (smaller-sided) development games, especially at younger ages.

Why care about the rankings for eight, ten, twelve, or even fourteen year old youngsters?

And we agreed that most parents look at the wrong things during games, which makes life more difficult for coaches.

By way of background, this dad is a very sophisticated soccer person on many levels and truly knows what to look for. Our daughters play on an ECNL team together. His daughter is part of the US national player pool.

This discussion was partly triggered by two games these last two weeks that made this issue very real for us.

The first game was a tough loss in our State Cup Semifinal against a team that parked the bus and beat us 1:0 with fifteen minutes to go on a long kick over our goalkeeper, who had positioned herself almost half way toward the halfway line as taught and encouraged by our coaches.

This is the modern way to position and move as a goalkeeper (think Manuel Neuer, the Bayern Munich and Germany goalkeeper) and she was doing everything right from a player development perspective.

We had 75% possession and shots against the posts and directly at the goalkeeper but we simply couldn’t score. Last time we played them we won 4:0. That’s soccer!

The winning team’s parents were ecstatic and celebrated loudly. We can’t fault them for that. It was a big semifinal and they expected to lose against our team.

But if I was a parent of a high-performing player on the winning team and knew what to look for during a game then I would stand there much less enthusiastically, reflecting on what I just saw, and consider moving my daughter to the losing team.

Any knowledgeable soccer person watching the game would have clearly seen the difference in longer-term potential between the two teams. My daughter’s team played smarter as a team trying to ‘create’ and the individual players clearly had better skills and soccer IQ. Please trust me when I say that I’m not biased about this.

The second game we played this last Saturday was against a team near Sacramento. The parents on the other team kept shouting things like “come on, use your body” and “big kick now”, and got excited every time their team did something aggressive/physical. You get the picture. Classic textbook case.

We won that second game 5:0. But who cares? Nice to score goals, of course, but we have no interest in our ranking in this league. More important is to focus on what we did and didn’t do well during different stages of the game and different zones of the field.

What worked, what didn’t. Was there chemistry between certain players on our team or did one not know what the other wanted to do most of the time? Did we try a new free kick routine? How about our shooting – was it accurate?

I know all this is easy to say sitting in front of a computer writing a blog post. The emotions during a game often cloud our judgment and responses and most parents just want to have fun and encourage their youngsters and teammates.

But if we truly believe in player development over short-term results and want to support our coaches then we should never respond to “How are we doing?” with the score. We should instead respond with how we are ‘competing’ and learning.

How about something like this:

“Good. Our defenders are working the ball up nicely and we are getting some good diagonal passes to our forwards. Our finishing isn’t too good today, but I love how our goalkeeper is really learning how to play more like a field player. Also, our coach is experimenting with a couple of changes to how our midfielders are connecting. The other team is playing an interesting formation and using high-pressing to try to keep us pinned in our half. By the way, Abby and Michaela are having a great game today. And Ale did that beautiful move of hers – twice! Gets the defender every time!”

After five minutes of back and forth discussion about this, the latecomer asks: “What’s the score, btw?”. “We’re losing 3:0.”

Now that would be an amazing team culture if this was the kind of conversation on the sideline, even just a little of that. Smart about the game (or a desire to learn more about this beautiful game) and focusing on longer-term player development.

Note to self.

Just pass it to the goalkeeper!!

Consider these two scenarios:

In scenario one a nine, ten, or eleven year old defender without an easy/obvious forward passing option and attackers closing in simply passes the ball, without fail, back to his goalkeeper (or simply kicks it up the field to relieve the pressure). This defender very rarely loses the ball and never concedes a goal.

In scenario two a nine, ten, or eleven year old defender more often than not attempts to dribble past the attacker (or attempts to use a first-touch past the attacker) and/or dribbles up-field in search of a passing option. Half the time he/she fails and it leads to turnovers and even conceded goals and lost games.

Picture this young defender on your son’s or daughter’s team for a moment. What would go through your mind if you observed scenario two during practice scrimmages or league games?

I suspect for many of you it would be something along the lines of “what is he/she doing? Don’t dribble there – it’s dangerous. Just pass it back to the goalkeeper!”

In my view, this is where what we see the pros do on TV and a conscious or unconscious preference for ‘winning’ clash with true player development. Here’s why:

That defender in scenario one can develop into a solid player. Simple passes, little risk taking, and probably a focus on athleticism using his/her body to defend against attackers. He/she will probably rarely be accused of directly conceding goals. Reliable and solid.

But also very predictable and with a limited tool kit. And as the standard of play increases over the years a simple pass back to his/her goalkeeper or another defender often won’t be the right decision. But it’s pretty much all he/she knows.

For example, when faced with high-pressing opposition there simply won’t be time or space to pass back to the goalkeeper. That would be the worst decision to make because it puts the goalkeeper under enormous pressure to ‘solve the problem’. So while the goalkeeper might technically concede a goal it was actually the defender who tossed the ‘hot potato’ to the goalkeeper. The defender needs to be able to creatively overcome the pressure and figure out how to work the ball up the field.

Another example is learning to work the ball out of your own defensive third when the opponent has lost the ball during an attack. In these situations it is often the case that, say, 14, 16 or even 18 players crowd your team’s defensive third which makes any easy pass to the goalkeeper or another teammate unlikely. A quality defender needs to be able to help work the ball up into the middle third with many opponents close by.

And in these situations the defender needs a larger tool kit, including the skills and confidence to dribble, fake movements, pass accurately in very tight spaces, and overall solve problems creatively and unpredictably. He/she has to be much more than just a reliable athletic risk-averse passer.

So which of the two young defenders will have a larger problem solving tool kit when they are fourteen or sixteen? The one in scenario one or two? I hope you agree that this is more likely going to be the defender in scenario two.

And keep in mind that teaching a skillful and creative fourteen or sixteen year old defender to be more risk-averse by passing back to the goalkeeper more often is much easier than teaching that defender in scenario one to be more skillful and creative to solve the much more challenging problems he/she will be facing as the quality of opponents increases.

In fact, it is probably fair to say that, for all practical intents and purposes, it is impossible to teach a sixteen year old player to be more skillful and creative. This part of player development needs to start when the player is just five or six and then intensely cultivated as the youngster grows up.

It is difficult to teach an old dog new tricks, and sixteen is ‘old’ when it comes to skills and creativity development in soccer. And the more skillful and creative those tricks, the more difficult. But teaching a skillful and creative fourteen or sixteen year old to pass back more often is orders of magnitude easier.

This is another example of ‘failing for the future‘. I strongly suggest you read my blog post on that topic. It’s one of the most important concepts in player development in my view.