I had low expectations for the new 11v11 U.S. Soccer grassroots coaching course, and getting up early Sunday morning to drag myself to Springfield didn’t help. Neither did the uninformative “Introduction to Grassroots Coaching” that replaced the helpful online F license after only a few years.

Five hours later, I wished that U.S. Soccer had done this years ago, back when I was first starting. Or I wished I had younger kids.

grassroots

Sure, I miss the old (but not that old) F license videos, which should really come back to replace the new intro. The 4v4 online module also was rather disappointing.

But when I took the 11v11 module this weekend, it clicked. I “got it.” And what I got was a new outlook on coaching.

The basic framework of a practice has changed.

Old way …

  1. A warmup activity related to the topic
  2. A small-sided game, also related to the topic
  3. An “expanded small-sided game,” also related and less comprehensible
  4. A scrimmage, also related … etc.

New way …

  1. Play
  2. Practice
  3. Play

Yes, it all relates to a topic. But we’re no longer dependent on explaining a new set of exercises to kids each week, at least in the 11v11 module.

Let’s look at it from the kids’ point of view …

Old way …

  1. What are we doing? What the heck is this?
  2. What are we doing? What the heck is this?
  3. What are we doing? What the heck is this?
  4. What are we doing? What the heck is this?

New way …

  1. Hey, we’re playing soccer, 4v4 or similar numbers. I get it.
  2. Hey, we’re playing soccer. The coach is freezing us on occasion, but I get it.
  3. Hey, we’re playing soccer again.

So the exercises don’t change that much. It’s soccer, just with different numbers per side and different coaching points to emphasize. If you take a look at these training plans on the Massachusetts Youth Soccer site, you’ll see there’s not much difference between them aside from what the coach says during practice. The U8 training plans vary a bit more, but they’re not too complicated.

That’s great. More playing. Less time explaining the purpose of the 100 cones on the field. And the coach spends less time figuring out different drills for different occasions. Just go to the Digital Coaching Center, pick your topic, get some suggested points of emphasis, add your own (perhaps based on something your team did really badly the week before) and off you go. Brilliant.

And it’s flexible. We can still do some of the old “four-phase” (warmup, small-sided, expanded small-sided, scrimmage) in the “practice” phase. You can introduce something with your favorite warmup activity — a “gates” drill if you want to sharpen their passing and receiving skills before getting into the tactics of attacking, a 3v3 before you get to the 6v5, etc.

I asked specifically about heading, prompted by a few fellow “candidates” in the course who were concerned about it. We’re supposed to limit the time we spend on heading, and I doubt many coaches were spending a whole 90-minute practice on the topic even before concussion awareness ramped up. My instructors’ suggestion — just take a few minutes out of the practice phase and toss around the ball a few different ways.

But this leads to my basic problem with every coaching course I’ve done — new way, old way or older way …

Is this really a course for grassroots/recreational coaches?

In fairness, a lot of the people in the class had ambitions beyond rec league. To get to the D license and progress up the ladder from there, you have to take three of the eight available grassroots modules, and the in-person 11v11 module must be one of them. (If you’ve played three years in a top-tier pro league, however they choose to define that, you can skip to the C.)

And the parent/professional line seems to be blurring more than I’ve seen in the past. The course’s host, Braddock Road (hey, Vienna — can I be reimbursed?), is moving its parent-coached teams up from the developmental/recreational leagues up to the NCSL. A lot of the parents in the room were anxious to take the D as soon as possible. (Apparently, it’s more accessible for parent coaches than it was in the past when I griped about it.) Maybe some clubs have realized they don’t need to hire pros to be on the sideline for every “travel” game any more.

Also, some parent coaches are really into it. Maybe a bit too much. One coach said he does his practice plans based in part on what he sees in scouting his opponents. At U9. I’ve only seen three distinct styles of play at U9.

  1. Alexandria Soccer: We’re going to complete a couple hundred passes each game, and unlike Spain, we’re also going to score because the typical U9 defense and goalkeeper can’t cope. If we concede goals to a big fast forward, so be it.
  2. Northern Virginia Soccer Club: We’re going to beat the crap out of you. Literally. Not like U9 refs are going to blow the whistle on most of these fouls, much less give us yellow cards. Then by U12, we’ll be ready to identify your top player and kick him out of the game just after halftime, then reduce your team to barely enough players to finish the game.
  3. Kids playing soccer. They’re kids. They’re going to do what kids do, and what the coach says is just a small factor in what they do.

But there are two reasons why this “grassroots” module still doesn’t quite meet the needs of a parent coach, even though it’s dropped some of the insistence on incomprehensible practice planning that the E and old D license had.

plan

1. We’re not learning how to teach technique.

Sure, at U14, it’s less of an issue than it is at U8. But we’re still getting some players with less experience or players who may move on to travel once they fix a couple of holes in their game. We’re still not getting that.

Granted, former elite players will always have an advantage here. My fellow rec coach who played with Julie Foudy at Stanford will know more about technique (and tactics, and probably a lot of things) than I ever will. No coaching class is likely to make up that gap. But I’m still surprised that, in all the resources and reading we’re given, no one emphasizes the best way to strike a ball, receive a ball, etc.

Heading is especially problematic. Maybe U12 rec coaches don’t need to know the finer points of dribbling and passing, given the lack of potential elite players in their ranks. But heading is an actual safety issue. Shouldn’t we learn how to do it and teach it? (Sure, I learned it when I was a youth player, but that was 35 years ago. Times have changed.)

So my constructive criticism for USSF would be simple. Give us a few videos on technique. In the in-person session, maybe spend 15 minutes on it while we’re on the field.

2. A lot of the information still seemed unrealistic for recreational coaches.

One of our instructors noted that it often takes a year for lessons to sink in. Travel coaches and elite coaches may have their teams for that long. Rec coaches usually do not. If they’re in AYSO, the teams are broken apart and reformed each year.

(Maybe that’s more of a criticism of the AYSO “redistribute the teams” model, but that’s another rant.)

Other notes from the session …

  1. We no longer use neutral players — say, a 5v5 with two players available on the wings who’ll pass back to whichever team passed it to them. Not “game-like.”
  2. Also not “game-like” — rondos. We didn’t talk about these at all. (I should point out that the Massachusetts U8 training plans above had a few things that also weren’t really “game-like.” Are rondos or neutral players any less “game-like” than having multiple goals on each side of the field?)
  3. Dynamic stretching is built into the first “play” phase. Basically, let them play for a few minutes, and let that be the primary warmup. (Personally, I plan to tell them not to go too hard at first.) Then pause, do your Frankensteins and barn-door swings, then get back to it. Makes sense. In my running days, I knew plenty of runners who’d jog a bit before stretching. Stretching a cold muscle incurs the old snapping-rubber-band analogy. And yes, you can use the “FIFA 11” warmup, which is coincidentally the only soccer video game in my house.
  4. We now “freeze” the action only in the practice phase. In the first play phase, we coach over the flow of the game and sometimes pull players aside. The last play phase is more like a game — maybe you’d pull a player aside, but you’re more likely to shout things over the flow. (Or not shout, if you’re stick with a tiny practice space like I am.)

So on the whole, this is an improvement. I’ve talked a lot about what parent coaches need, including a full presentation at an NSCAA convention. This gets us partway.

It’s unfortunate in a way that U.S. Soccer needed to do such a drastic revision. It’s difficult to feel the previous lessons weren’t wasted. But the good news is that any changes in the future should just be tweaks rather than a teardown.

 

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