In many ways, developing a high performing soccer player is like developing a high achieving student. Both demand a certain willingness, time commitment and prioritization in order to improve and reach the next level. And both require three groups of people to be engaged in the process.
- Player (Student)
- Coach (Teacher)
If one of these groups is not invested in the process, it will be difficult for the others to succeed on their own. The purpose of competitive soccer is to bring together like-minded players, parents and coaches into a single environment focused on helping players be the best they can be.
For many parents, raising a student is natural since we were all were students in our lives. We understand helping out with homework and school projects, making sure kids get to class on-time and working with teachers when issues come up. Perhaps even outside tutoring if a student is really struggling with a topic. Soccer is very similar:
- Get the player to practices (homework) and matches (“The Test”).
- Support the player by facilitating their off-seasons with camps and fitness maintenance activities.
- Communicate openly and frequently with the coach to ensure little problems don’t become big problems.
The last item, communications, is critical. As a coach, it’s important that I am having fun alongside the kids. If I’m not having fun, it will ripple into the team. During my coaching career, I’ve interacted with hundreds of parents and 80% of the time, if something isn’t going well with the team, it has to do with a parent. And 80% of those parent issues boil down to parent / coach communications or a lack thereof. I firmly believe in building a positive rapport with parents, much like a great school teacher will with the parents of his or her pupils. For the benefit of the player, we need to be open with one another, ask the questions and find the answers.
Finally, the thing young players need most is support. Parents should be their player’s number one fan. The super majority of kids drop out of organized sports with the top reasons for quitting being: “not having fun” and “no longer interested”. Some of this fall-out is due to how many coaches operate, but some is also due to parents pushing too hard, too often or parental ambivalence.
As with helping your student with school work, it helps if you are familiar with the topic. You are unlikely to dive in and help with some Algebra problems or answer questions about U.S. History unless you have prior knowledge or you do a little research of your own before sitting down to help your child.
Many parents bring with them to competitive soccer a lot of knowledge and playing experience. Some may even have been coaches. But for many others, their familiarity with the game may be limited. In either case, the more you know, the more you can help your player. As a competitive coach, I believe it’s my responsibility to help not just the players learn the game, but parents as well (to the extent they are interested). Over the coming seasons, I will share information at various points in time with the hope it helps parents better understand what their players are going through and where my head is at.
To kick-start the process, I offer here a few initial items for parents to consider:
- I strongly recommend all parents take the CDC’s Heads Up Online Training Course. Under Colorado law (Jake Snakenberg Youth Sports Concussion Act), all coaches working with youth athletes 11 years old and up need to complete this course each year. I think it’s important for parents to also be aware of concussions as symptoms may not emerge immediately following a head impact and it will be up to parents to act. If a player is diagnosed with a concussion, they will not return to practice or match play until I receive a written release from the player’s physician. It’s also important for parents to stress to players that being held out of soccer is far, far less important than dealing with a concussion and that it’s up to the player to share their symptoms with the coach and / or parent.
- Understand the Laws of the Game. Soccer is governed by laws, not rules, and like laws in the real world, soccer’s laws are subject to constant re-interpretation by referees and soccer’s multitude of governing bodies. A great place to start is the NSCAA’s Coaching Fundamentals Laws of the Game webpage. For the ambitious parent, consider becoming a certified official. BSC usually hosts a USSF Grade 8 course each winter. I think anyone who takes the course and officiates a few games will find it enlightening.
- Be aware of the U.S. Soccer Curriculum (you will need to create a free account to access the U.S. Soccer Digital Coaching Center).
- Check out the reading list at http://www.navigoglobal.com/reading/ (particularly Coaching Outside the Box: Changing the Mindset in Youth Soccer).
- If you’re really serious, consider investing $25 and 2-3 hours of your time taking the USSF National F License on-line course. This introduction to youth soccer coaching provides valuable insights around what coaches are attempting to accomplish with young players.
Match Day Behavior
Matches are a big reason why kids play soccer: I’ve never had a player say: “I don’t really like matches. I’m on the team because I only like to practice.” So kids are usually primed and ready-to-go on match day. Many parents also come pretty pumped-up and their level of “enthusiasm” often rises during the course of a match. However, it’s important that all the grown-ups (coaches included) keep their cool to avoid degrading a match from a positive thing to a negative thing. I’ve seen parents get in shouting matches and physical confrontations with other parents (both from their own team and with the opponent’s parents). It’s wildly embarrassing for a child to see their parent acting immaturely and, ultimately, it impacts the parent / coach relationship.
Parents need to understand and respect the following:
- Review and adhere to the guidelines found in the BSC Code of Conduct Spectators RESPECT document.
- Be positive with any comments you make during a match. Extremely negative comments not only embarrass yourself, but also embarrass your child and the Club.
- Don’t talk to the other team’s players or parents during the match.
- Don’t mix with the other team’s parents: sit on the correct end of the field (opposite our bench) and have a buffer (10 yards or so from the midfield line).
- Set up chairs and umbrellas at least 3-4 yards from the touchline to ensure there’s plenty of room for the Assistant Referee (AR) to operate and for players to execute throw-ins.
- Don’t shout at or criticize officials. Many are young and are your “neighbors’ kids” and don’t deserve abuse. And older officials have no problem ejecting an obnoxious parent; I have seen officials kick a whole team of parents out for just one parent’s poor judgement. Officials also see the game from the player’s perspective (goal-to-goal) vs. what parents and coaches see (touchline-to-touchline). You cannot see what they see and, to some extent, they cannot see what you see (although ARs should). If there are issues with officiating, I will address them during half-time or at the end of a match and via official channels. BTW… Contrary to popular belief, soccer is most certainly a contact sport.
- Cheer on your player, but don’t coach. Talking to (shouting at) a player on or near the ball is a huge coaching “no no” and advice you may provide to a player may or may not be correct based on things we’ve been working on in practice. Whether your advice is right or wrong, it’s surely a distraction. If you want to get involved with the team’s training, talk to me. I have jobs parents can do to help including video recording of matches, match analysis and scouting.
- The car ride home from the match should be a sanctuary. Keep in mind the 24 Hour Rule recommendations.
My number 1 piece of advice: Mad? Walk to the corner flag.
We are all super busy in our day-to-day lives and a 14-16 player roster amounts to ~50 people associated with the team (players, parents, coaches). To help with team communications and coordination, we’ll use TeamSnap.com as our information hub for:
- Schedules (league, tournaments, special practices, other special events)
- Availability (which players can or cannot participate in which scheduled events)
- Email and SMS text messaging
- Team finance / player accounting
- Action items (e.g. documents needed, etc.)
To ensure we all stay on the same page with the minimal amount of effort, it’s important for parents to really engage in team communications during the season, be responsive to requests for information and pay special attention to email and SMS on days when the weather is touch n’ go.
Beyond TeamSnap.com, email and SMS, some coaches will use social networking tools like Facebook.com and Twitter.com. I am not one of those coaches. In accordance with BSC policies (some of which I helped assemble when I was a BSC board member), I will not “Friend”, “Follow” or otherwise connect on-line with any player. If parents choose to provide their player with my email address or mobile number and I am contacted by a player, I will not reply to email or SMS from a player without a parent on Cc:.
There will be times when a coach or a fellow parent pays for something ahead of time and it’s not fair to expect them to carry that cost for long. Upcoming costs will be shared in advance so parents have the opportunity to plan ahead. TeamSnap.com will be used to track costs and outstanding payments. Don’t be the last parent to true-up their player’s balance!
Other Hot Topics
ACL Injury Prevention
For a range of reasons, girls are more likely to suffer an ACL injury than boys. As mentioned elsewhere, I am the parent of two female players one of whom has been professionally assessed as “at risk” for ACL injury, so I am acutely aware of this hazard. As such, team warm-ups (practice and match) will include movements intended to reduce the risk of ACL injury. While there is no way to 100% ensure an ACL injury won’t happen, I’ll do what I can to mitigate this type of injury.
A tangent to the concussion conversation is head gear. During the spring of 2012, I completed some independent research to educate myself about head gear and learned no one had reached a definitive conclusion. Over the years, I’ve continued to track this topic and not much has changed either way.
There are strong arguments for and against. What does seem clear is that many concussions result from the act of heading a ball. This is not necessarily saying heading the ball (i.e. ball-to-head contact) is dangerous, but situations where headers come into play appear to create most of the injuries:
- head-to-head contact
- elbows to the back of heads
- head-to-ground contact after losing balance jumping for a header
Concussions can also result from other scenarios, but going for a header appears to generate more than its fair share. Many concussions could be prevented if players were trained how to protect themselves while going for a header (i.e. proper technique) or if they played with more control and caution (i.e. think!). We’ll work on both.
Since neither FIFA nor U.S. Soccer has taken a firm stance on the matter, I can’t really recommend head gear nor can I discourage it. I can say that if your player goes for the head gear, parents need to make it clear that wearing head gear isn’t a license to play recklessly and to put their head into dangerous places. Even American football players wearing helmets get concussions (lots of them as it turns out), so a little band of foam isn’t going to protect your player.
In May’12, the Rock Center with Brian Williams news show ran a piece about a group of female teenage players from Pennsylvania who all experienced multiple concussions and are living with the after affects. As a parent, it’s a little scary to watch, but I encourage you to check out the link below with your player and have an open discussion about this topic.
About a month later, there was a follow-up report in response to viewers contacting the show about head gear and inquiring about its efficacy. The second show included an interview with the founder of Full 90 (Jeff Skeen) as well as a player who suffered multiple concussions while wearing a Full 90 device. A partial transcript of the segment as well as video can be found here:
The second report didn’t really tilt the argument either way. Something that was mentioned in the original report, and reinforced in the second report, is that one reason why girls are more susceptible to concussions is lower neck strength compared to boys. One recommendation coming from the neurologist interviewed for both reports is that improving next strength can prevent injuries:
Combined with proper technique and “playing smart”, a stronger neck will definitely reduce risk.
In more recent news, US Soccer launched an injury awareness program in late 2015 called Recognize to Recover. As part of that program, they outlined guidelines for heading training and also made a few statements about head gear in an interview with SoccerAmerica:
where they essentially continued to sit on the fence. This continued into 2016 with U.S. Soccer’s revised Concussion Guidelines still silent on this topic.
On a personal note, I can say I LOVE playing soccer. It’s fast, intellectually challenging, physical. And I like to compete in general, so when I play, it’s always tempting to really go for it once in a while. But at the same time, I don’t like being hurt nor do I want to be responsible for having injured someone else (at 6’3″, 215 lbs it’s rare I play against someone bigger than me). As an adult, it’s relatively easy for me to manage my adrenaline and play aggressively, but safely. Our children don’t always have that same level of self-control and as parents (and as a coach) it’s our job to help them mature in this area. Play hard, but play smart and that includes avoiding unnecessary risks.