Archive for September, 2009

Effort and Playing Time

September 29, 2009

One of the most difficult parts of coaching youth soccer is allocating playing time. As a coach you want to be as equitable with the playing time as possible. For house (or non-competitive, non-traveling) teams, this was always easy. My philosophy was to give each player the same amount of playing time, regardless of skill. Only disciplinary issues would result in less playing time.

With competitive teams, playing time became much more difficult to manage. I still tried to be as equitable as possible but now skill level, attitude, score, and effort also contributed to or resulted in a lack of playing time.

For me, the most important trait in a competitive youth player is effort—the more effort put forth in a game and the more energy expended during game, the more playing time the player receives. I’m a strong believer that at the end of every game, a player should be very tired and have very little energy left over.

To illustrate how effort impacted the allocation of playing time with two charts.  The first chart illustrates the playing time during a game for Players A and B early in the season (x-axis). Both players start the game (green line). Player A puts forth much more effort and expends much more energy that Player B (y-axis). Both are taken out at the same time to recuperate (yellow double line). Because I like Player A’s effort, I put her in after a short rest. Even though Player B has completely recovered her energy, she remains on the bench because of the lack of effort exhibited on the field (red double line). Player B does make it back into the game but if the effort is not there, her playing time remains less than Player A’s playing time.

Early Season Playing Time

It is important for Player A to understand that she needs to be taken out of the game. If she did not come out, all of her energy would be used up before the end of the game (green dashed line). As a coach, I would much rather have her on the field at the end of the game. In addition, by taking her out, others get a chance to play.

The second chart illustrates what the playing time may look like midway through the season for Players A and B. Player A is still getting the same amount of playing time. However, Player B is getting less playing time because the effort is still not there.

Midway Season Playing Time

Player B should not lose hope. If I see more effort and energy during the game (and during practice … what they say is true, “you play the way you practice”), playing time would increase.

If you are a coach or a parent, show these charts to your players/child so they understand that effort can make all the difference in the world … and not just in soccer.

2-3 Goal Difference Per Game: Never Let the Ball Hit the Ground

September 21, 2009

As a referee, I have had the opportunity to see many age groups and different calibers of players. I am always surprised at the number of players, even high school players, who don’t have the ability or the confidence to control  the ball out of the air. This is most evident when a goalie punts the ball but it happens on corners, free kicks, goal kicks, or anytime the ball is kicked high in the air.

I equate being able to control a soccer ball out of the air to catching a pop-up in baseball. At first, catching a baseball is very intimidating. The ball is hard, the ball is hit high, and if a player miscalculates a catch, it could cause a serious injury. I know I was scared to death when I was first asked to catch a pop-up. But at least in baseball, there is a glove you can use. In soccer, there is no glove.

The problem with letting the ball hit the ground in soccer is that at that point, it is anyone’s ball. Usually it will be the faster, more aggressive player who gets to it first. If that is your player, great. If not, you will find yourself in a heap of trouble more than you would like. Also when the ball is punted by the opposing goalie, the ball is heading toward your goal. If the ball bounces several times before it is controlled, it will be dangerously close to your goal.

These particular ‘2-3 goal difference per game’ postings are not meant to get into techniques and mechanics. That will be done in other postings. However, regarding the earlier statement that there is no glove in soccer, that is not entirely correct. The fact is there are two gloves–a right and left foot. It is just a matter of learning how to catch and control the high balls. When a player feels confident controlling high balls, the goal should be, “Never Let the Ball Hit the Ground!”

Offensive Counter

As a youngster, I made my living knowing that most defenders would not be able to control the high kicks. Therefore, once a ball was punted or kicked by a teammate and I knew I was not going to be able to control it, I would simply anticipate the defenders missing the ball. When they did, I would be well on my way toward the opponent’s goal. Even after college, this strategy worked very well, although the defenders would miss these balls much lest frequently.

Headers!

It is worth mentioning about headers. I’m not a big fan of headers, especially with young players. First of all, the spot on the head that should be making contact with the ball is actually the forehead. Now imagine the thoughts that must be going through a young player’s head when the coach tells him what part of the head should be used. “But coach, the ball is going to hit me in my nose!” is a common response (and often it does). I would be scared too. So for a long time, young players will hit the ball with the top of the head which is not the part of the head they should be using.

As coaches, I would make sure to teach your players the proper heading mechanics but greatly discourage them from using their heads, especially on high punts or kicks. Tell them to use their ‘gloves’ instead.

2-3 Goal Difference Per Game: Simple Goalkeeper Tricks

September 21, 2009

I’ve already written about how playing the goalie outside the penalty box will dramatically reduce the number scoring opportunities your opponents will have during a game. Fewer opportunities will reduce the number of goals that are scored. These additional tricks will help out as well.

  • On free kicks, a goalie should position herself on the goal line or better yet, one foot inside the goal line. In youth games, goals are often scored on free kicks by kicking the ball over the goalie’s head. By standing on or inside the goal, chances of this occurring are reduced. In addition, it is much easier for a goalkeeper to run forward to meet a ball than running backwards.
  • Shooters have a tendency to kick the ball right in the middle of the goal. Therefore, if the goalie is positioned correctly, chances are that a number of the shots will be easily saved. There are several methods to teach good positions that will be covered in future postings. The simplest method is to have your goalkeeper constantly check her position by looking over her shoulders to make sure she is centered between the two goal posts.
  • The next trick may be difficult to grasp and teach but once it is learned, it will become second nature. First of all, a goalie needs to learn to anticipate a shot on goal. Once the kicker’s head goes down to look at the ball, the shot is not far behind. Then just before the ball is struck, the goalie should take one hop-step forward and hit the ground with both feet at the same time the kicker strikes the ball. Besides achieving forward momentum, the goalie is now in a better body position to move to her right or left to save the kick. Oftentimes, a goalie is caught flat footed when a shot is taken, making it very difficult to move in either direction. In baseball, you often see infielders and outfielders do the same thing. In addition, the hop step will cut down the angle of the goal. Hockey goalies do a great job of being prepared for a shot and cutting down angles.

Offensive Counter

Once again, playing against a good goalie can make for a long and frustrating day. There a several ways to counter these types of goalie tricks.

  • If the goalie is short and the goals are tall, even if the goalie is standing on the line or in the goal, it is still worth shooting the ball high. Be aware that by playing on the line, the goalie has probably created more space between her and the defenders. In this case, a good strategy may be to drop over the wall but in front of the goalkeeper to an on-rushing attacker.
  • If the goalie has excellent positioning and is cutting the down the angles beautifully, the best thing to do is make one extra pass to a wide-open teammate. This extra pass will require a lot of discipline on the kicker’s part but will almost certainly result in a goal.

2-3 Goal Difference Per Game: Communication

September 21, 2009
There is no prettier sound on the soccer field that 22 players communicating with one another. Communication is a critical component to soccer success. A player can see only so much in terms of what is going on around him at any given time. He needs help from his teammates. In addition, a player needs to know what his teammates are thinking. This can only take happen if everyone is communicating with everyone else.

Communication can happen many different ways. The three main forms of communication are verbal, gesturing, and eye contact. For now, I’m only focusing on verbal communication and only two examples. But if you incorporate just these two examples, you will see instant improvement in your team’s performance and communication.

“Keep”

Goalkeepers have a distinct advantage over field players. Not only can they handle the ball inside the penalty box but 99.9% of the time, the play is in front of them. As a result, goalies have the best picture of what is happening on the field. As such, a goalkeeper will know best if she will be able to get to a ball before her teammates or opponents. When she makes the decision to attack the ball, she needs to yell “Keep” so the whole field can hear her.

Yelling ‘keep’ serves two purposes:
  • It lets the goalie’s teammates know that she wants the ball and therefore not to touch or play it.
  • It warns the opponents that the goalkeeper has every intention of going after the ball.
It always helps to have a vocal goalie. However, if you have a quiet goalie, as long as she says ‘keep’ loud enough for her teammates to hear her, that is fine. Another term that a goalie can use in this situation is ‘keeper’.

“Man On”

How often have you seen a player waiting for a ball only to have an opponent step in front of him and steal the ball? Much too often, I bet. But what happens when a player or coach yells “Man On”? Instantly that same player will react and go toward the ball. ‘Man On’ means, “watch out, someone is coming up on you from behind or from the side.” This expression is the best expression new or young players can learn. It will:
  • Help them start to become more vocal and communicative
  • Get players to go toward the ball more frequently and naturally
  • Reduce the number of times the ball gets stolen
  • Keep coaches from having to yell or scream the warning. And given decibel levels I’ve heard recently, everyone will appreciate this.

2-3 Goal Difference Per Game: Shots On Goal

September 4, 2009
Ever wonder why it seems that so many shots on goal are shot directly at the goalie? Sure it could be that the goalie is in a good position. But I am of a different opinion. I believe the main reason is due to which part of the foot is used to strike the ball.

Oftentimes, the instep (also known as the top-of-the-foot or laces) is used to shoot on goal. The main reason to use the instep is to produce a more powerful shot. A strong shot is great but if it is shot directly at the goalie, what is the point? Players will often get frustrated at themselves when kick after kick goes directly to the goalkeeper; yet this keeps happening. What is going on?

Different Technique
I consider myself an expert when it comes to using and understanding the importance of the inside-of-the-foot. I invented a soccer training device called Loopball which teaches players to use the inside-of-the-foot. You will see many more posts in this blog about Loopball and the importance of the inside-of-the-foot. For the purposes of this post, I believe the problem lies in the fact that shots with the instep require much less thought than shots with the inside-of-the-foot. Instep shots require brute strength. Inside-of-the-foot shots require forethought and placement.

The direction a ball travels can normally be traced back to the position of the plant-foot toe. For shots on goal, this toe is usually pointed at the middle of the goal. When an instep kick is well struck, it will travel in the direction that this toe is pointing which is where the goalkeeper is likely to be standing. It is usually the poorly-struck instep kicks that stand a better chance of going in. The same logic can be applied to shots with the inside-of-the-foot, but because more forethought is given with this type of shot, the kicks don’t always head for the middle of the goal. Using the inside-of-the-foot requires the player to think which side of the goal to aim for and whether or not to curve the shot around the defenders or goalkeeper.

From long distance, I definitely recommend using an instep kick. But when the ball is closer to the goal, have your players use the inside-of-the-foot and have them think about the kick. You’ll also be surprised how much force this type of kick can generate when struck well. The top players in the world usually use the inside-of-the-foot to score goals, especially with free kicks. David ‘Bend-It-Like’ Beckham certainly does and he is quite successful.

2-3 Goal Difference Per Game: Play the Whistle

September 4, 2009

I know many of you have heard the expression “Play the Whistle”. It means that players should continue to play until the referee blows her whistle. This is great advice that all players should follow. However, many times at the youth level you will see players stop for various reasons:

  • They believe a foul or infraction was committed. For instance, the ball hits a hand or arm, someone fell down from contact, a player was in an offside position, etc.
  • They believe the ball left the field of play.
  • They saw the assistant referee’s (AR’s) flag go up.
  • They heard a whistle from another game.
  • They heard parents and coaches yelling for a foul or infraction.

There is not much that can be done about another game going on at the same time. Some referees have different-sounding whistles for just this situation. If not, players usually adapt to a multi-whistle environment quickly so any confusion will usually happen just once. With regard to the other examples:

  • A hand-ball is called when a player INTENTIONALLY handles the ball with the hand or arm. At the youth level, ‘intentional’ has a very broad interpretation. Play until the whistle is blown.
  • Referees are instructed not to blow the whistle every single time the ball goes out-of-play. The only time they will is when it is not obvious that the ball has gone out. A ball is technically out-of-play when the ‘whole of the ball’ has completely crossed a boundary line. As a rule, anytime the ball is close to a boundary line, let the referee and her whistle decide when the ball is out-of-play. The players should continue to play.
  • An AR (linesman/linesperson) is there to ASSIST the referee. Their flag can’t officially stop the game. Otherwise, they would have a whistle. By raising her flag, the AR is only suggesting that an offside occurred or that a foul or infraction took place. The referee is the final decision-maker. Wait for her whistle.

My U10 boys team won a tournament one year when in the finals, in OT, one of my players, aware that the whistle had not blown, scored the golden-goal game winner while everyone else was standing around. The rest of the players thought the ball had gone over the goal line. However, the referee did not think so and never blew his whistle. Could the ball have been out-of-play? Probably, given the way my players and the other team reacted. The lesson is that only one person’s opinion matters–the referee’s. The other team learned a very valuable and costly lesson that day. I’d be surprised if those players ever made that mistake again.

2-3 Goal Difference Per Game: Good Sportsmanship

September 3, 2009

In many ways, it is disappointing that I am writing about good sportsmanship making a 2-3 goal difference per game. In an ideal world, we–players, coaches, and parents–would all exhibit good sportsmanship. Unfortunately, we know that this is rarely the case. But those teams whose players, coaches, and parents exhibit good sportsmanship will have an advantage over a team of poor sports in the eyes of the most important person/people on the soccer field–the referees.

Referees are just like you and me. They love the sport of soccer, don’t like individuals who complicate their lives, and like all of us, make mistakes. Referees are human. And because they are human, they will see and appreciate good sportsmanship.

These are some examples of good sportsmanship:

  • If a player fouls an opponent, have the player who committed the foul ask the opponent if he is OK. Extend a hand to help him up.
  • Don’t argue or talk back to the referee. If he made a bad call, keep in mind that the referee has made far fewer mistakes than your players.
  • Be respectful.
  • If an opponent is upset at a player and tries to provoke a confrontation, ignore the challenge. Walk away and let the referee handle the confrontational player.
  • Adhere to the referee’s pre- and in-game instructions. If you are supposed to sub at midfield, sub at midfield. If you and your players are supposed to be 4 feet off the touch line, be 4 feet off the touch line.

As a referee, my job is to judge and call a game with complete impartiality and neutrality. To the best of my ability, I always try to live by this principle. But I am human. I notice and appreciate well-mannered players, coaches, and parents. I also notice and don’t appreciate poorly-behaved players, coaches, and parents. Therefore, if I am a referee:

  • Would I withhold issuing a yellow card on a hard foul if the player who committed the foul shows remorse and compassion toward the fouled player? Maybe.
  • Would I only show a yellow card instead of a straight red on an extremely hard foul if the player who committed the foul shows remorse and compassion toward the fouled player? Maybe.
  • Would I not punish a well-mannered coach and team if  he accidentally had too many players on the field? Maybe.
  • Would I call a direct free kick instead of a penalty on a foul committed by a well-mannered and respectful player that took place only a few inches inside the penalty area? Maybe.

As you can see, I have listed four infractions that if called differently, could have had a huge impact on the outcome of a game. Not that good sportsmen and well-behaved players should ever get favorable calls. But I know for a fact that exhibiting this behavior and character can’t hurt. However, good sportsmanship and behavior should always be practiced, PERIOD! It will make the beautiful game that much more beautiful.

Counter Strategy

This one is easy. Show better sportsmanship and behavior than the opponent. Remember, soccer is not just about winning games. It is also about teaching and building character. No one likes a poor sport.

2-3 Goal Difference Per Game: Bombs Away

September 3, 2009

At the youth level, most players have a really tough time controlling the ball out of the air, especially when the ball descends from great heights such as a goalie punt. Many players are scared and I don’t blame them. Players are often taught is to head these balls. That is the worst thing a player could do for several reasons:

  • Soccer balls may not be properly inflated. Over-inflated and under-inflated balls can really hurt when they are not headed properly. Over time, who knows what long-term damage could result.
  • While coaches probably teach their players the correct way to head a ball–always using the forehead and not the top of the head–rarely do players practice heading extremely high balls. Usually any game-simulated heading exercises come from corners or free kicks where the trajectory of the ball is not nearly as steep.
  • Players rarely have any control of where the ball ends up after heading the ball.
  • High balls are very difficult to judge. For an outfielder in baseball, it takes many years to learn the fundamentals of catching a routine pop-up. Same thing in soccer with high balls.

Since many coaches don’t practice controlling high balls, the offensive team should take full advantage of this, especially when going with the wind. This is how to do it.

  • Have your goalie punt the ball as high as possible straight down the middle of the field. The higher the kick, the more the wind will carry the ball.
  • At least one forward should always assume that the defense is going to miss the ball. This happens more often than not in youth soccer. Playing the miss will result in many one-on-ones with the goalie.
  • Consider putting in the goal the player who has the strongest leg but who may not necessarily be your best goalie especially when down a few goals and when going with the wind. With the wind to the goalie’s back, you will be able to take advantage of her long punts.

Defensive Strategy

This is very easy to defend against:

  • After seeing that the long, high punts are a problem, have your last one or two defenders play further back than usual. It is always better if the first bounce is in front of the defender, not in back.
  • By playing a defender back, it will be easier for her to run up on the ball, if necessary, to control it.
  • Controlling these types of kicks should be done with the feet, not the head or even the chest. If properly taught, it is very easy to control the ball with the feet even from great heights. It is just a matter of practice.

2-3 Goal Difference Per Game: No Offside Traps

September 3, 2009

I don’t get it. The offside trap is one of the most difficult defensive strategies to implement successfully, yet I see coach after coach yelling at their young players to play an offside trap, especially on free kicks inside the offensive third. My recommendation is that no teams U14 and under should ever employ this tactic. I would even question if older teams should employ it. It is simply too risky and more often than not will lead to more and better scoring opportunities for the other team. These are some reasons why the offside trap is a bad idea:

  • It takes precise defensive coordination to apply an offside trap. All players must be on the same page and must know and when and when not to push up to put the offense in an offside opposition. Invariably, one or more defensive players will not move up which will keep an offensive player onside. Professional players have a hard enough time playing an offensive trap. Just don’t do it!
  • You assume the assistant referee (if there is one) will call the offside correctly. Oftentimes at the younger age groups, the assistant referees (ARs) are just a few years older than the players and they are just learning to be referees. Many of the young ARs don’t follow the second-to-last defender so they will not be in a good position to call the offside. In addition, calling the offside correctly is one of the most difficult calls to make in soccer given the new interpretation of the offside law. Just don’t do it!
  • The new offside law makes it OK for an offensive player to be in an offside if they are not playing the ball or are not directly involved in the play. This makes the call of the AR that much more difficult and uncertain. Just don’t do it!

Offensive Strategy

If you are fortunate enough to be playing a team which believes in the offside trap, count your blessings and count on more scoring opportunities. The best way to counter an offside trap is to:

  • Test the offside trap. The defense needs to be well-coordinated to pull off a successful offside trap. Test them early in the game to see how well they do. If you have several offside calls made against you, so what.
  • Kick the ball across the field into open space. The player the defense is least worried about is the opposite winger. As long as that winger is alert and has some speed, they will get plenty of scoring opportunity.
  • Confuse the defenders. Have an offensive player stand in an offside position. The defense will become pre-occupied with that player and will often forget the whereabouts of other players. As long as this player does not play the ball or is not involved in the play, she will not be called for an offside infraction. A few offside calls against you will be well worth the confusion this player generates. If the referee and AR are calling this player offside when she is not, abandon this idea.
  • If a player is in an offside position and the ball is passed her way, have her stand like a statue or simply turn away from the ball. This indicates to the referee and AR that she has no intention of playing the ball. Good referees and ARs will not whistle this infraction. While the defenders and other coach are appealing for a call, have another offensive player from an onside position, chase after the ball. Use good referees and ARs to your advantage.

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