Simple Tips that will Significantly Impact Games

May 3, 2010

As I approach my one-hundredth post, I have learned the following:

  • Gore sells. Besides the home page, my most popular post was the one about Aaron Ramsey’s broken leg.
  • Initially, I thought I only had ideas for 25 or 30 posts. I now know I have what seems like an endless supply of material to write about.
  • My content must be OK as Soccer America has reprinted five articles to date and Potomac Soccer Wire reprints one of my posts weekly.
  • I have learned that most soccer blogs cover professional games, leagues, and players. Very few blogs are dedicated to improving youth soccer for an audience of youth coaches, players, and parents.

The other day I was looking at the page hits and noticed that a set of very valuable articles I wrote early on has not gotten the love or attention I feel they deserve. I have written 20 articles that start with the title, “2-3 Goal Difference per Game”. These were written primarily for coaches who tend to over-coach, place too much importance on the X’s and O’s, and don’t let their players go out and have fun and make mistakes.

Soccer, especially at the youth level, should be about free play and only a few coaches’ instructions during games. These articles include simple coaching tips that should be easy for players to understand and learn quickly. These tips will dramatically affect the outcome of a game. While player development, and not winning, should be a youth coach’s ultimate goal, increasing a team’s chances of winning without compromising development and fun is not a bad thing either.

You will find the subject matter and respective links to the 20 articles below. Enjoy!

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Don’t Retaliate

April 28, 2010

A funny incident happened to my daughter this year during her high school season that illustrates retaliation perfectly. My daughter entered a game early in the second half and before her teammate had a chance to restart the game with a throw-in, my daughter:

  • Received a yellow card,
  • Was almost shown a red card, and
  • Found herself back on the bench.

The incident unfolded as follows:

  1. As she entered the game and positioned herself for the throw-in, an opponent pinched her on her hip.
  2. Not one to take kindly to this sort of action, my daughter reciprocated with an elbow to the pincher’s mid-section.
  3. Seeing only the elbow, the referee showed my daughter a yellow card and pointed to the bench (in our high school league, all yellow card recipients require to be substituted).
  4. As she neared the bench, her coach asked her why she did what she did. She answered by showing him the pinch mark and made sure that everyone in the stands knew that she had been pinched.
  5. Upon seeing the mark, the coach had her return to the field to show the referee the evidence.
  6. As she neared him, the referee asked, “If she would like a red card as well?”
  7. Without responding, my daughter returned to the bench to accept her punishment. Fortunately, she went back in after the next dead ball. There were no further retributions or flare-ups.

I feel the referee was perfectly justified in giving my daughter the yellow card because a referee can only call and punish actions or infractions that he/she sees. Even though he probably guessed something had happened to my daughter to cause her to react like she did, he should not have shown the other girl a yellow card since he did not see the pinch occur. All he could do was keep a closer eye on the pincher and be quick to call a foul if he witnessed anything.

I gave my daughter the following advice should she be involved in another similar incident in the future:

  • Raise your voice to get the referee’s attention. Something like, “Ouch! You can’t pinch me like that!” would have done the trick.
  • Display the evidence to the player and make sure the referee sees it as well. If possible, go to the referee and show him/her the evidence up close.
  • Be polite when showing the referee any evidence. If he/she does not want to see it, that’s fine. The purpose, which was to let the referee know that a particular player caused you pain, was achieved.
  • Don’t retaliate. Opponents, especially older ones, play mind games. Their intention is to get the opponent off his/her game. This type of gamesmanship is part of soccer as well as most other sports. It is something that players need to understand and expect.

Retaliation is never the answer. While it is not fair, the referee will always see the retaliator’s reaction and not the perpetrator’s action. React and you will almost certainly be carded and possibly end up back on the bench without ever playing a minute of a game.

Referees Are Teachers Too

April 25, 2010

I recently published a post with the title, “All Adults Are Teachers.” That post was geared more to coaches and parents who needed a reminder of the awesome responsibility adults have in teaching our kids and that some of our actions, though unintended, may be sending the wrong message to our kids.

Carrying on with the notion that it “Takes a Village to Raise a Kid,” it is important to remember the role of the referee. Sure the main responsibility of the referee is to officiate the game. But when officiating games that involve …

  • Young players
  • Players who don’t have a lot of soccer experience
  • Players who are being coached by someone with little soccer knowledge

… referees should also assume the role of on-field teacher.

There are many teaching moments and opportunities for referees to set a good tone for a game.

  • It is important for all players, as well as coaches and parents, to understand the rules and violations of the game and why a certain call is made. When I blow my whistle, I like everyone in the immediate vicinity to know why I did it.
  • The offside law is particularly difficult to understand. When I make this call, I always try to let the nearby players know why I made the call and which player was in the offside position. Sometimes I will tell a player I’m close to when he/she is in an offside position.
  • Be quick and decisive on all calls. Don’t leave the teams and fans wondering who the foul was on. Point as quickly as possible in the direction that the ball should played.
  • Be animated. If there is a bad throw-in, make sure to mime the infraction by raising your back foot off the ground.
  • Don’t enforce all infractions, especially with young players and when no advantage has been gained. Let the first infraction slide but remind the players that the ball must be played forward on a kick off and that both feet need to remain on the ground on a throw-in.
  • If a player does not know what to do with ball once the whistle is blown, make sure to be close enough to the action to be of assistance. I don’t like it when a referee can help speed up the game by helping but chooses not to.
  • Care about what you are doing. Run and always be in position. You’ll make the right calls more often and you will show the players that you are working hard just like them.
  • Have fun! Fun is contagious.
  • Talk to the players. Don’t talk only about fouls or infractions. Tell them, “Nice pass” or “Good defense” or “I like your sportsmanship.” Validate the positives.
  • Teach and educate but never be condescending. Don’t be a know-it-all.

Though they may not agree with all of your calls, players, coaches, and fans will appreciate the effort to help everyone understand the game better. In doing so, you will gain the players’ and adults’ respect and refereeing will be that much more joyous and rewarding.

Responding to an Own Goal: Learn from Dan Boyle of the San Jose Sharks

April 21, 2010

I’ve been a San Jose Sharks hockey fan ever since the franchise was first established in 1991. For the last several years I have had to endure early-round exits from the Stanley Cup playoffs when the Sharks were often the better team. It looked like the same fate would befall the Sharks this season as well when in Game 3 against the Colorado Avalanche, Dan Boyle inadvertently shot the puck into his own net in OT after having outshot Colorado 51 – 16 in three scoreless regulation periods. Have a look for yourself.

Granted replays showed that a Colorado player did actually tip the puck when it was played by Boyle. But still, how were the Sharks, and in particular Boyle, going to respond after such a devastating goal and loss?

Before answering that question, own goals are a fact of life in soccer as well. I have been tracking goal scoring at the professional level for over three months and estimate that about 2% of all goals are own goals.

If you are a soccer player, I can guarantee you that you will score at least one own goal, and if you are a defender, many own goals in your career. If it has not happened yet, it will. When it happens, these are some ways I recommend players should react and not react:

  • Laugh about it. You know your teammates are going to tease you about it after the game anyway. You might as well get it started.
  • Forget about it. An own goal is simply a mistake. In any game, 100s of mistakes are made and rarely does anyone dwell on them during a game. Move on.
  • Don’t beat yourself up. What’s done is done. The milk has already been spilled. Pick yourself up, laugh about it, and then forget about it.
  • Don’t become a player you are not. The tendency after an own goal is to try too hard to make up for the miscue. Don’t! Usually when you try too hard, you will make more mistakes. Just continue to play your game.

Back to the Sharks. It turns out that Boyle and the Sharks responded very well to the own goal. Boyle scored 1:12 into the first period and the Sharks won 2-1 in OT and evened the series 2-2.

My prediction is that the Sharks go on to win the series, win the Western Conference, and win their first Stanley Cup. If they do, they will have Boyle’s own goal to thank.

Reputations: Easy to Gain, Difficult to Change

April 18, 2010

“Well, your mother told you all that I could give you was a reputation.
Aww, she never cared for me,
But did she ever say a prayer for me?

— Billy Joel, “Only the Good Die Young”

If Virginia’s mom (Virginia is the main protagonist in Billy Joel’s song) was talking about Virginia’s soccer reputation, she would have been wrong. Whether it is Virginia’s soccer reputation or yours, only you are responsible for the reputation you have earned on the field. No one else is responsible; and certainly not the young man whose words are being sung.

The same is true for coaches, teams, parents, fans, and leagues. Reputations are earned. They also precede you. Once a reputation has been established, it is difficult to change.

One area where reputations play a part, rightfully or not, is with referees. When I referee, I try to go into a game with as clear and unbiased a mind as possible. But I also like to go into each game prepared. I’ll ask fellow referees for background information on the two teams and particular players. I’ll try to find out the scores of the previous games played between the two teams. I’ll access the play and the behavior of the players before the game.

In addition, the more I referee, the more personal information I have gathered and use for upcoming games. I know who the better players are and which players are physical and sometimes overly-physical. I know whether a coach is going to question all my calls and I know if the parents and fans are knowledgeable or not. I try not to let these reputations affect my calls, but I am only human.

The beginning of a new season is a great time to work on one’s reputation. With each new season, there is usually enough turnover and enough time has lapsed, making it possible for everyone to start with a relatively clean slate. So, Virginia, if you feel like you or your soccer team has an unwarranted or unjust reputation, now is the perfect time to change it.

Coaches: Practice with your Team

April 15, 2010

At a recent 360 Soccer Training camp where I was a trainer, I had something very unique happen to me that I want to share with everyone. A player who had never played soccer before was showing me how to play soccer. And, I must admit, he was doing it quite well.

At the end of each session, we had small-sided, Word Cup Tournament games. I selected the least experienced players to be on my team. Whenever I had the ball, I pointed where I wanted my teammates to move in order to be in an open space to receive a pass. When they moved correctly, I rewarded them with a pass. In turn, I always made sure to run to an open space when I did not have the ball. When doing so, I always communicated with my teammates with statements such as, “I’m right behind you” or “I’m open if you need to pass.”

There are many benefits of playing with your players during a practice, especially when they are young.

  • Show them, don’t tell them. In-game pointing and communication as described above are great examples of “instructing without instruction”.
  • Players will develop a stronger bond with you especially if you inject occasional light-hearted play.
  • As the ‘on-field referee’, you can easily dictate the flow of the game when necessary.
  • It is a great way to stay in shape.
  • If you have never played before, get out there and give it a shot. Apply what you have been teaching and preaching to your players.
  • If you are unable to play, get older players to fill this role. This would be a great opportunity for high school players to develop teaching and leadership skills.

It was not long after we started playing the World Cup Tournament scrimmages that this young, inexperienced player started to mimic what I was doing on the field. He started to direct his teammates to open spots where he intended to pass the ball. And then he would make the pass. He also had no problem directing me. I gladly obliged and followed his direction.

So coaches, practice with your team and relish moments such as these.

Coaches: Limit Joystick Coaching

April 13, 2010

I first heard the term ‘Joystick Coaching’ a few years back. What a wonderfully descriptive term. As with video games, joystick coaches want to dictate and control the movement of all players on the field. Hence the term ‘joystick’. However, there is very little joy to be had by players when they are coached in this manner.

Joystick coaching has reaches epidemic proportions (and parents are just as guilty). Why is this happening?

  • Look at other popular youth sports such as football, baseball, and basketball. Football and baseball coaches are joystick experts. Even in basketball where the game is more fluid (like soccer) and, therefore, more difficult to control and manipulate, coaches still try their best to dictate the action. Since many soccer coaches come from these backgrounds, it is only natural that joystick coaching carries over into soccer.
  • We are a sports nation hung up on X’s and O’s. Joysticking is a natural by-product of this fascination. How many times do you see defenders standing in one spot because that is where the defenders were positioned on the dry-erase board?
  • Soccer is not an easy sport to learn. No matter how many times coaches tell young players to spread out and not play bunch-ball, they still do. As such, coaches feel compelled to ‘help’ position and move their players about.

Besides early player retirements, there are other consequences of this ‘helping’ behavior.

  • In a sport that is very fluid where the action happens so quickly, players must be able to think on their feet and solve or address problems immediately. However, the more players are told what to do, the less they will be able to think for themselves.
  • Players lose their sense of purpose. They are out there to play a game and try their best yet are constantly being told how to play.
  • Once one adult starts maneuvering players on the field, other adults feel empowered to do the same. Soon, players are being told how to play and where to stand by coaches, parents, and complete strangers. And often, the three groups are giving three completely different instructions. What is a player to do?

These are some simple tips that will help coaches curb the joystick epidemic and truly help players.

  • Lead by example. Limited joystick coaching during games as much as possible.
  • Set ground rules for your assistant coaches and parents. Explain the drawback of joystick coaching and having multiple adults ‘help’ players with conflicting instructions.
  • Rather than telling players what to do and where to play, ask them how and where they should be playing. Let them think of the answer and assist only if they don’t know the answer.

Coaches (and parents), leave your joysticks hooked up to your game consoles at home for use with FIFA ’10. If you don’t, you’ll be using the actual joystick much more since Saturday mornings will soon be free.

Fun Practice Games: World Cup Tournament

April 11, 2010

At a recent 360 Soccer Training camp where I was a trainer, each daily session ended with a World Cup Tournament. The tournament pitted four teams of four playing a round-robin tournament. A team received 3 points for a win, 2 for a tie, and 1 for a loss (after all, no one or no team ever likes to receive zero points). The team with the most points each day was declared World Cup Champs.

Like many other trainers, I strongly recommend that each session or practice end with some sort of scrimmage, preferably small-sided to maximize touches. Besides having an opportunity to apply and reinforce new skills that were learned that day in a game-like setting, the players will feel rewarded for their hard work and strong effort they had put in earlier.

Each World Cup team received a different colored pinnie. Each team then had to choose a country to represent. The caveat was that the selected country had to have the same color in their uniform as the pinnie that was assigned to the team. For example, the green-pinnied team chose Mexico one day and Nigeria the next day and the red-pinnied team chose the United States and Japan.

I recommend taking the World Cup Tournament concept one step further. Players should also assume the identity of the professional players that represent each of the countries selected. For example, the United States team of Bornstein, Donovan, Bradley, and Dempsey could play against Mexico and Israel Castro, Gerardo Torrado, Giovanni Dos Santos, and Carlos Vela.

If you are like me, you will quickly run out of teams and players. In this case, assign a different player each week the task of coming up with team names and players for each pinnie. Team and player names can also come from the WPS, MLS, EPL, Bundesliga, and La Liga leagues. If you decide to incorporate the use of professional names, make sure teammates call each other by their new names. This will force players to concentrate more and play with their heads up.

Players should enjoy their own version of the World Cup Tournament. In the process, they will learn more about the game of soccer and some geography. Who knows, maybe a nickname or two will stick as well.

Which Goalkeeper is Better: Today’s or Yesteryear’s?

April 8, 2010

Author’s Note: This article discusses professional goalkeepers. Non-professional goalkeepers are exempt.

Because today’s goalkeepers are so tall and so athletic, I believe it is much harder to score goals today than it was 20 or 30 years ago. In fact, sometimes I wonder how any goals are scored because goalkeepers make regulation-sized goals look like youth goals. Yet despite all the physical gains, tactical advancements, and acrobatic dives, I don’t believe today’s goalkeepers are held to the same standards as their predecessors. Which begs the question … which generation of goalkeepers is better—today’s or yesteryear’s?

For me, it all comes down to expectations and accountability. Back in my playing days, goalkeepers were expected to hold onto all shots. Rebounds, of any sort, were unacceptable unless the ball was being tipped over the crossbar.

Today, that philosophy has changed and I think for the better. Since today’s shots are stronger and more unpredictable (I’ve never seen so many knuckleballs), it is harder to make a save and hold on to the ball. Therefore, it makes sense to have goalkeepers deflect shots for a corner rather than trying to corral them and possibly give up a rebound. Plus, many times a fingertip is all a goalkeeper is able to get on the ball making a deflection the only option.

Yet too often, I see today’s goalkeepers letting rebounds deflect back into the center of the field or deflect shots that appear easily catchable. Besides being unacceptable, rarely do I see or hear goalkeepers being held accountable for poor saves.

Saves should never deflect back into the center of the field. The diagram below shows acceptable deflections (green) and unacceptable deflections (red). Granted, there are times when goalkeepers have to make reaction saves. In these cases, who cares where the ball ends up as long as it is not in the back of the net? But for longer-distance shots that can be judged, they should be just as easy, if not easier, to deflect sideways.

To counter high-velocity shots, I see many goalkeepers catch-and-drop the ball in front of them rather than try to catch it outright or deflect it away. This is a wonderful solution to the velocity problem. The ‘catch-dropping’ method prevents a goalkeeper from having to absorb the full impact of a shot. Since an attacker is rarely close enough to a goalkeeper, if the ball drops close to the goalkeeper’s feet, this method should preclude a goalkeeper from having to deflect shots kicked directly at him/her.

I am no goalkeeper (I only recall playing in goal once in a JV game) and don’t claim to be one. And God Bless those players who want to play ‘keeper. You are a rare and special breed. But I think today’s professional goalkeepers are permitted to get away with poor and unnecessary deflections which is setting a bad example for youth goalkeepers. Therefore, while they are athletically superior to their predecessors, today’s goalkeepers don’t appear to be as technically sound.

What do you think?

Size Does Not Matter

April 6, 2010
What do Argentina’s Lionel Messi and Diego Maradona and Brazil’s Pele have in common besides being international superstars and most likely in the Top 10 list of all-time soccer greats? They are all short.
  • Messi is 5′ 6.5″
  • Maradona is 5′ 5″
  • Pele is 5′ 8″

I hate it when I hear coaches place so much emphasis on size and height. Emphasis on speed I can understand. I also think height is important for a goalie. But to dismiss or overlook a player because of his/her physical stature is a huge mistake. Size does not matter!

Over the years, I have found many reasons why size is not important:

  • Shorter players have a lower center of gravity, making it much easier to dribble, make fakes and feints, and change direction.
  • Never underestimate the toughness of a short player. These players are usually tougher and more physical than taller players.
  • Before the age of 14 or 15, headers play a very insignificant part in a soccer game. Being able to out-jump someone for a header is of little value.

Regarding headers; height does help; no doubt about it. But so, too, do timing and jumping ability. Check out these amazing headers by the aforementioned superstars.

  • Messi’s 2009 UEFA Championship goal against Manchester City. Look how Messi reached back to head the ball.
  • Maradona’s ‘Hand-of-God’ goal in the 1986 World Cup against England. Though Maradona used his hand to score the goal (see images below), I’m still amazed when I look at the video. In real-time, it still looks like a legitimate header. Though it should not have counted, Maradona still had to get off the ground a good distance (the second picture shows how short Maradona is).

  • Pele’s goal in the 1970 World Cup Final against Italy. Look how high he got.

Remember coaches, just because soccer is called football throughout the world except in the United States, don’t place the same importance on size and height that American football coaches do. Otherwise, you may be overlooking the next Messi, or in my case, the next me.

Photo of the 1975 or 1976  Odd Grenland Ballklubb youth team. I was 9 or 10 at the time. Would I (red arrow) have been overlooked by many coaches today?