Archive for November, 2009

Fun Practice Alternative: Ultimate Soccer

November 29, 2009

There is a game that I see both youth and adult soccer coaches use as a warm-up exercise that I don’t think is very good or effective. I called it ‘Throw-in Keepaway’ but I believe there are other names for it. The game is played as follows:

  • Players are divided into two teams.
  • Using the proper throw-in technique (with the ball behind the head with 2 hands and the feet on the ground), the ball is passed to an open player on the same team.
  • The open player needs to catch the ball to earn a point. A point is earned with each successful catch. Points accumulate as the ball is successfully passed and caught by a teammate. If the passing team drops the ball but retains possession, the point total goes back to zero.
  • If the ball is caught or recovered by the other team, the other team starts passing the ball around and accumulating points in the same fashion.
  • The team with the highest point value wins.

This game does get players loose and it is fun in its uniqueness. But I don’t like some of the negative aspects that are associated with the game:

  • It promotes bunch ball because most players can’t throw-in very far.
  • In the haste of finding and passing the ball to an open player, poor and improper throw-in techniques are often used.
  • Because of the close confines, there is a greater chance of players running into each other and getting hurt.

Instead, I recommend playing a game called ‘Ultimate Soccer’. Ultimate Soccer (US) is very similar to ‘Ultimate Frisbee’ (UF). Like UF, US is played with a Frisbee on a field that looks like a football field, with end zones at either end. A point is earned each time the Frisbee is caught in the opposing team’s end zone. A player who catches the Frisbee outside of the end zone must advance the Frisbee by throwing it to a teammate; the player is not allowed to advance the Frisbee by running with it.

US could be played using UF rules, but I prefer a slightly modified set of rules that make US more soccer friendly.

  • US should be played on an age-appropriate soccer field with the end zones starting on the goal line and extending out to the top of the penalty box (see image).
  • Similar to soccer, US kick-offs (or throw-offs) start at midfield with the Frisbee being tossed backwards (this is different than UF where the Frisbee is thrown downfield by the team that scored a point).
  • Unlike UF which requires the defense to play a man-to-man defense, in US teams are allowed to play a defensive zone if they wish.

Benefits

Sure many players may struggle throwing the Frisbee. To help, make sure that each game begins with a warm-up throwing and tutorial session. Then let the fun and benefits begin.

  • Movement off the ball
    In ‘Ultimate’ if a player stands around, he/she will never receive a pass and if they do, it will be intercepted. In soccer, I have found a lot of players just stand around waiting for the ball to be passed to them. ‘Ultimate’ will help players move.
  • Finding the open space
    Now that there is movement, where should a player move? Simply put, ‘open space’ is any place there is no other offensive or defensive player. Finding and moving to the open space requires looking at the entire field and not just at the Frisbee.
  • Playing with the head up
    To find the open space, a player must play with his/her head up in order to see the entire field. In soccer, players often focus only on the player with the ball and seldom on their surroundings. Ultimate will force players to play with the head up.
  • Passing to the open space
    One of the best parts of ‘Ultimate’ is it teaches the thrower to throw the Frisbee not at the player but rather to the spot where the player will be when he/she has completed a move. I have found that passing to the open space is one of the hardest concepts to learn in soccer. US will reinforce this skill.
  • Discourages kickball and one-touch soccer
    At the youth level, many players simply kick the ball away as soon as it comes to them without ever controlling it first. With ‘Ultimate’, this is not possible. A player has to first catch the Frisbee before a pass can be made. At the youth level, it is critical for a player to learn the importance and skill of ball control.
  • Running toward the Frisbee
    ‘Ultimate’ players will learn very quickly that unless they run toward the Frisbee once it is thrown to them instead of waiting for the Frisbee to come to them, a defender will always step in front of them and intercept the pass. The same thing happens on the soccer field if a player does move toward the ball when it is passed to him/her.
  • Verbal and body-language communication
    The US field is large. The player in possession of the Frisbee can’t see the entire field at once. He/she needs help from teammates. Body language, such as pointing to the spot you want the Frisbee thrown, as well as verbal communication, is an important key to any team’s success. I don’t think there can ever be enough communication on the soccer field, especially between players.
  • Conditioning
    US is a fantastic way for soccer players to get in game shape. It simulates game-like conditions. If US is played at the end of practice, the players are guaranteed to be exhausted by the end. Yet they’ll have had lots of fun!

Knee Injury Precautions

November 16, 2009

This is my knee story. It was my junior year of high school. Midway through the soccer season and 20 minutes into the first half, I had a breakaway on goal. However, just before shooting on goal, a defender was able to get a touch on the ball knocking it away. Instead of making contact with the ball, I made contact with his leg. In doing so, I hyper-extended my right knee. As I was carried off the field, I knew something was not right. However, after 10 minutes of ice and a shot of endorphins, the knee felt great. I felt great. I was ready to go back in.

As I recall, I proceeded to have a great game … amazing what some endorphins will do. But it all came to an explosive end five minutes before the end of the game. I went up for a header, landed awkwardly on my right leg and BOOM! My knee, and more specifically, my ACL exploded. For those of you unfortunate enough to have had a similar experience, you know the sound I’m talking about. I still can’t believe no one else heard the explosion.

Since the knees were never designed to take the twisting, torquing, cutting, and physical demands associated with soccer, many soccer players have their own knee story or stories. There is a very good chance that if a soccer player plays soccer long enough, the knees will sustain some type of trauma or injury. Because of this likelihood and based on my own experience, I believe knee injuries need to be addressed in a special way.

When I coached, I had the following rule: when a player sustained any type of knee injury, whether it was a ‘knock’, a small tweak, or slight hyper-extension, he or she was done for two weeks. It did not matter how good the player was, what important games were coming up, or how well the player was moving around or feeling; he or she was not allowed to practice or play for two weeks. No ifs, ands, or buts!

Besides not playing, I also asked the parents of the injured player to do the following:

  • Start icing the knee immediately–20 minutes on, 20 minutes off.
  • Take their child to see a doctor, preferably an orthopedic surgeon, within a few days of the injury. If the injury looked bad, I would recommend the emergency room.
  • Stress to their child the importance of resting the knee during school–no recess or lunchtime high-jinks.

As a coach, if you chose to follow this rule or already have a similar rule, you will undoubtedly deal with players pleading with you that they are fine and parents who are positive you are overreacting. No matter. You are doing what is in the best long-term interest of the player. Make sure to share this rule with players and parents at the beginning of the season so there are no surprises.

Author’s Note: Though this post is about knees, I believe any leg injury should be treated with precaution. Ankle, heel, toe, calf, hamstring, quadriceps, or groin injuries should all require some type of rest as well as a professional exam. Having a player play with any type of leg injury that has not had time to heal could have negative long-term consequences. At the youth level, compromising any one of these leg parts is simply not worth it.

2-3 Goal Difference Per Game: Neutralize the Best Player

November 12, 2009

One year when I was coaching a U10 Boys team, the team made it to a tournament’s consolation (3rd-place) game. We were facing the same team that had beaten us a day earlier by a score of 7-3 (and it was not that close). They had a super-fast, left-footed winger who must have scored 4 or 5 of their goals. What to do? Another lopsided lose would certainly be a downer. I did what any coach would do in this situation–I called on ‘The Glove’.

Strategically speaking, I did the following:

  • This tournament was a 6-a-side tournament–5 field players and a goalie. Being more defensive-minded, my formation had been 2-2-1. For the 2nd game, I changed it to a 2-2 formation.
  • Having freed up one position, I took my scrappiest player and told him never to leave the side of their best player. I told him to think of that player as a hand and for him to be ‘The Glove’. Wherever that player went, he had to follow. As soon as that player received the ball, he had to be right next to him making sure he had no room to move and no place to go. I also asked my player to lean on or touch the other player every now and then, engage in idle conversation with him, and occasionally nip at his feet just to remind him that he had company. But ‘The Glove’ was too shy so he never applied these additional suggestions.

The result was as follows:

  • The other player was completely shut down. He got frustrated early on, lost his temper, and received a yellow card for foul language.
  • The other players started engaging in some unnecessarily rough and unsportsmanlike behavior resulting in more yellow cards being shown.
  • The other coach and I got into a heated exchange when I asked him to control his players’ tactics and he would not comply.
  • The boys won 6-0! Talk about a simple tactical change making a huge difference.

Countering ‘The Glove’

There are a few things you can do to counter this strategy. The first time this happens to your better player, take him out of the game and explain to him what is happening. Tell him that it is the price for being good and for him to get used to it. Tell him not to get frustrated or lose his cool. Tell him that’s what the other team wants to happen. Then employ one or more of these tactics

  • You could have him move around and try to lose ‘The Glove’. But in all likelihood once the first glove gets tired, another glove will be brought on. Instead, accept the tight marking and slow his game down. Then, when he wants the ball, have him quickly separate himself from ‘The Glove’ in the form of a quick burst.
  • Have him go stand next to the center back and see how the other team reacts to two players covering the one player. If the center fullback moves, have your player follow him.
  • Consider playing your player in the back or midfield. Since you player is considered less of a threat to score, the other coach will likely remove ‘The Glove’ after a while.
  • Have your player play in an offside position–not just a few feet but more like 20-30 yards. See how the other team responds to this strategy.

95-Yard Goal; Thank the Goalkeeper

November 8, 2009

If you have read an earlier post of mine, you would know that I am a big fan of playing the goalie out as far as possible. When the ball is in the offensive third of the field, I have no problem with the goalie being at the edge of the kick-off circle. Besides making the goalie feel more a part of the team and of the action, playing the goalie that far out will prevent a number of breakaways on goal, and thus keep the opposition from scoring as many goals.

Some of you may recall that when my son was playing in goal, I always told him that I would pay him $100 if an opponent scored from long distance because he was playing too far out. Not once did I come close to paying him $100. But I know his positioning prevented dozens of sure goals from being scored.

So you can imagine my concern when I heard that a college player scored a goal on a 95-yard shot. Was the goalie too far out from goal? Had I been coaching him, would I have been out $100? Look for yourself.

As it turns out, my $100 would have been safe. It turns out that while the University of Tulsa goalkeeper was standing at the top of the penalty box, he was not playing far enough out. Had he been standing approximately 30-yards from his goal line when Ryan Rosenbaum of Southern Methodist University kicked the ball, he would have been able to easily catch the ball. He would have also been in a better position to stop breakaways if any were to develop. As it turns out, he was caught in no-man’s-land and gave up a needless goal which eventually cost his team the game.

As a goalkeeper, don’t be afraid to play up as long as you know the ball can’t be kicked over your head.

Fun Practice Alternative: Kickball

November 3, 2009

I’m sure everyone is familiar with the school yard game of kickball. Kickball is played just like baseball but with a soccer ball. My version of kickball is slightly different from the standard way kickball is played. My version incorporates a lot of ball control.

Field Layout

  • Set up the field as you would a regular baseball field (see graph below). The dimension should vary by age.
  • Rings should be should be used as bases. Regular flat bases will work as well
  • Between each set of bases (i.e., home and first), set up discs or cones that the players will need to dribble through. Then number can vary.Kickball

The Rules

  • Each team gets 3 outs.
  • An out can be registered by ‘catching’ the ball or forcing someone out at any of the four bases.
  • After 4 balls (not 3 strikers) a batter is out.

The Game

  • The pitcher is an offensive player. The pitcher kicks the ball over the home plate ring. A kick that does not go over the ring is called a ‘ball’. The pitcher is allowed only 4 ‘balls’ before the batter is out. The batter stands behind home plate and is only allowed to kick ‘strikes’. Once the ball is kicked, the pitcher must leave the field as not to interfere with the defense. The pitcher becomes the offensive team’s next kicker.
  • Once a strike is kicked into play, the batter must take another ball (which is kept to the right of the batter’s box), and dribble between the cones to first base. Each cone must be successfully dribbled through. If the player misses a cone, she must return to the missed cone and continue dribbling. If the defensive team catches the ball or the ball arrives to first base before the batter, the batter is out. The same rule applies to any base. The batter can advance to as many bases as she pleases. However once a player commits to the next base, she is committed and can’t go back to the previous base. Each base has to be crossed before advancing to the next base.
  • Players on base are allowed to advance as soon as the batter kicks the ball.
  • To force a player out, the ball must arrive and be placed in the ring before the dribbling player arrives. Defenders may pass the ball to a player covering the base.
  • Defensively, hands are not allowed except to ‘catch’ a ball. However, hands can only be used after a player uses her head, chest, thigh, or foot to control the ball before it hits the ground. Once the ball is controlled and before hitting the ground, the same player can catch the ball for an out. If the initial defensive player is not able to control the first-touch effectively, another defensive player can still ‘catch’ the ball as long as the ball does not hit the ground she first controls the ball with her head, chest, thigh, or foot. Offensive players are not allowed to advance or tag up on catches. However, if a ball is caught, players are permitted to dribble back to their starting base. A defensive player can force the runner out by returning the ball with a pass or dribble to the base the player must return to.

That’s it. Equipment, field size, and rules can vary based on what works best for your team. Hopefully your team enjoys this game. The best thing of all, they are still working on their ball control and having fun doing it.