For Coaches, For Parents, Matches

WHY Don’t They Talk About Soccer on Canadian TV Networks?? Soccer Fitness Gols Video Blog #56: 10/13/2017

Hi Everyone,

In this edition of the Soccer Fitness Gols Video Blog, I discuss the complete scarcity of soccer coverage on all mainstream Canadian television networks, especially TSN and Sportsnet, and why in my opinion, this lack of media attention to soccer in Canada is a problem that hampers the development of Canadian soccer players.

With all of the recent talk (and complaints) regarding the United States Men’s National Soccer Team’s failure to Qualify for the 2018 FIFA World Cup, it’s interesting that no one in the U.S. has mentioned the lack of media attention their National Team receives as a possible contributing factor to their recent poor results.

Fortunately, this is one soccer problem for which there is a simple solution – start discussing the game and showing more highlights on TV – immediately!

I hope you like the video and as always, please feel free to share your thoughts/comments!

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Fitness, For Coaches, For Parents

Talent can be Developed ANYWHERE – Even on a Small Tropical Island – Soccer Fitness Gols Video Blog #54: 9/23/2017

Hi Everyone,

In this edition of the Soccer Fitness Gols Video Blog, I discuss my recent trip to Maui, Hawaii, and the work I did there with the Valley Isle Soccer Academy, the largest soccer academy on the island.  Despite numbering less than 150 players and, of course, hailing from an island with a total population of only 150,000 people, Valley Isle has managed to develop top level talent, including one player who secured a place with the Portland Timbers’ MLS Academy, and another who earned a trial at training camp with the United States National Girls U15 Team.

The take-home message here?  That talent can be developed ANYWHERE – even on a small tropical island!

I hope you enjoy the video and as always, please feel free to post your thoughts and comments.

Fitness, For Coaches, For Parents

Talent can be Developed Anywhere – Even on a Small Tropical Island

Located in the heart of Maui – one of the Hawaiian Islands, in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, with a population of just under 150,000 people – the Valley Isle Soccer Academy is, as stated on their website, “Maui’s only professionally organized training academy for competitive youth soccer”.

Founded in 2012 by former F.K. Jagodina (Serbian professional youth academy) and West Virginia Wesleyan College player Aleksander Filipovic, along with his wife, former New Zealand Women’s U20 National Team and York University player and an old schoolmate of mine, Rebecca Filipovic, the Academy is now home to over 5 competitive teams with 150 full-time registered players.

After being hired to work with the Academy earlier this month, to provide my Soccer Fitness Trainer’s Course to their coaches, fitness assessments for their players, and a nutrition presentation – for the players and their parents, I was not really sure what to expect.

I had full confidence that the quality of coaching the Academy players were receiving under the guidance of Aleks and Rebecca would be excellent, but I could not say that I had the same confidence that the players’ technical and tactical abilities would be at the same standard.

After all, Maui is a small island in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, with no real soccer history or culture to speak of, and of course it is also part of the United States, a country in which soccer has not yet fully developed or flourished – even on the densely populated mainland.

Following my weeklong employment with the Academy, however, I can now happily say that I was wrong about the level of soccer talent on Maui – the players’ technical and tactical abilities and overall soccer talent far exceeded my expectations.

During their training sessions and inter-squad games throughout the week, the young male and female players from Hawaii showed poise and confidence on the ball, as well as a solid tactical understanding of the concepts taught to them by Aleks and the other Coaching Staff.

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If not for the weather and scenery, you could be forgiven for thinking you were watching a youth team from a major North American metropolitan area – like New York, Los Angeles, or even Toronto – and not a small Hawaiian island with no professional or even university Varsity soccer teams to it name.

Apparently, I am not the only one who has noticed the soccer talent on display at Valley Isle.

Notable recent Academy success stories include Caetlyn Johannes, who recently headed back to her third training camp with the United States U15 Girls National Team, and Tommy Musto, who has accepted a place in the Portland Timbers’ Youth Academy U14 Boys team in Portland, Oregon, feeder system for the Timbers’ senior professional soccer team that competes in Major League Soccer.

What is the secret to the success of the Valley Isle Soccer Academy in developing talented young soccer players?  In reality, it is no secret at all – simply the combination of knowledgeable, experienced coaches working consistently with young players who have a passion for the game and are eager to learn.

I’ve written before about the importance of coach education and the role it plays in player development – both from a physical perspective as well as a talent development perspective – and never has this importance been more evident to me than during my time on Maui.

Aleks, Rebecca and their team have proven that even players without the advantage of participating in highly competitive, densely populated youth leagues and tournaments – as is the case in Maui – can develop and progress into the elite levels of play in the continent, including youth National Teams and professional Youth Academy programs.

They have also proven that talented soccer players are not born; they are made, through a combination of hard work, qualified instruction, a love of the game and a little bit of luck along the way.

Perhaps, in Canada, where all too often it seems as though we make excuses as to why we do not develop top level soccer players, we could take a lesson from the Valley Isle Soccer Academy, that talent can be developed anywhere – even on a small tropical island.

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I’d love to hear your thoughts about this topic.  Drop me a line here to get the conversation started.

For Coaches, For Parents, Science

How Playing Futsal will Make You a Better Athlete AND a Better Soccer Player – Soccer Fitness Gols Video Blog #50: 8/7/2017

Hi Everyone,

In this edition of the Soccer Fitness Gols Video Blog, I discuss and explain some of the evidence demonstrating that the technical, tactical and physical demands of Futsal are in fact higher than in 11 vs. 11 soccer. The implications of this evidence? That playing Futsal will make you a better athlete AND a better soccer player!
Hope you like it and as always, please feel free to pot your thoughts and comments!

For Coaches, For Parents, Science

Moving Futsal Forward in Canada – Three reasons ALL Canadian soccer players should play Futsal

On the weekend of July 21st-23rd, 2017, I was invited to attend the first-ever Futsal Canada Conference in Ottawa, Ontario, and to give a presentation about the physical demands of futsal, plus guidelines and best practices for futsal coaches in testing, training, and monitoring their players and teams.

Representatives from 6 different provinces were in attendance at the Conference, among them members of the Canadian Soccer Association and the Head and Assistant Coaches of the Canadian Men’s National Futsal Team.  All of these people came together during the weekend with a  common goal – to move build, grow and develop the sport of futsal in Canada and to move “#futsal forward” (which was the hashtag for the Conference).

For me, attending this Conference was a revelation.  I had known about futsal and had followed the Canadian Men’s National Futsal team in their road to qualification for the 2016 FIFA Futsal World Cup in Colombia in 2016 (for which they narrowly missed out on qualification, having finished just 1 point shy in the Final Group B), but until this past weekend I had never realised how popular the sport really was in Canada, nor had I ever imagined that so many people across the country had such a vested interest in growing the sport.

While researching for my presentation, I was able to more clearly identify some of the scientific data that can provide insight into futsal’s popularity in Canada and across the world.  This article will briefly summarize the scientific literature specific to futsal that has allowed me to determine three reasons that Canadian soccer players should consider playing futsal.

  1. Futsal is more intense than soccer:

A recent study by Barbero-Alvarez et al. (2008) determine that elite level futsal players had higher average heart rates (90% of maximum, versus typical averages of 80% of maximum in soccer) and spent more time in high heart rate zones (an average of 83% of their total game time at a heart rate greater than 85% of their maximum, versus typical averages in soccer of 70-75%).  Thus, when examining the time that players are on the pitch, futsal is played at a higher heart rate than soccer, indicating that development of the aerobic system will be accentuated in soccer players by playing futsal.

The same study also reported that futsal players performed a greater percentage of their total distances covered, running at high intensities.  High speed running and sprinting (classified as running at speeds greater than or equal to 22 km/Hr) accounted for 22% of the total distances covered in futsal (as compared to typical averages of between 10-15% in soccer).  Thus, not only is futsal played at a higher heart rate than soccer, it also requires more fast running and sprinting in relation to the total running done than soccer does.  In layman’s terms, this means that futsal provides a short-duration, high-intensity workout with a lot of fast running and sprinting – all of which is ideal to improve physical performance in soccer.

  1. Futsal is more technically demanding than soccer

First of all, everything about the sport of futsal – including the rules, the pitch and even the ball – is specifically designed to encourage explosive, creative and attacking play.  Consider for a moment the following equipment specifications and rules:

  • The pitch is significantly smaller (40 metres long x 20 metres wide) than an 11 v 11 soccer field
  • The ball is smaller (size 4), and lighter (400-440 grams) than a conventional 11 v 11 soccer ball, making it harder to play long balls accurately
  • The ball is filled with foam, giving it 33% less bounce, so it requires more close control
  • There is a 4-second rule on re-starts, encouraging quick play
  • Goalkeepers are also limited to 4 seconds when re-starting from the hands
  • Goalkeepers must throw from the end-line, which adds even further to the speed of play
  • Goalkeepers cannot touch the ball by hand when passed back
  • Only one pass-back allowed to the goalkeeper per possession, which encourages forward play
  • There is no offside rule
  • Team have unlimited “flying” substitutions, so tired players cn be replaced without stopping play

Recent research has also identified that elite futsal players have significantly more touches on the ball during games than soccer players do.  A comprehensive study by the English FA and FIFA Research Departments indicated that individuals playing Futsal receive the ball five times more often than they would do when they are playing 11-a-side soccer (with 2.60 touches per minute in futsal versus 0.60 touches per minute in soccer), and that the percentage of time that the ball is out of play in futsal is less than 1/3rd than it is in soccer (11.5% in futsal versus 34.6% in soccer).  Ultimately, the rules and equipment of the game, combined with the small pitch size and greater amount of touches per player, mean that futsal players will have the opportunity to perform more fundamental individual skills, enabling them to maximize the development of these skills in each and every match.

  1. Futsal likely develops better tactical knowledge and game intelligence than soccer

Of course, these qualities in soccer players and/or futsal players are and always will be difficult to measure and quantify, however, we can me some reasonable assumptions based on point #2 above.  Because futsal provides more individual touches on the ball than soccer, it also provides more interactions between small groups of opposing players (1v1, 2v1, 2v2, etc.).

Ultimately, these extra interactions should lead to the development of a better overall understanding of the basic attacking and defending principles of play.  If players are exposed to these small-sided situations enough times, they should be able to predict the outcome of each situation more accurately, which in turn should lead to enhanced anticipatory ability and better positioning.  Over time, players who are better able to accurately position themselves earlier than their opponents should be able to execute any specific strategic and tactical plans more effectively, and their overall in-game performance should improve.  More research examining the effectiveness of small-sided soccer games, including futsal, on markers of players’ tactical performance, including through the use of software that can assess in-game player performance, is necessary before any definitive conclusions can be made.

Following the development of my presentation at the 2017 Futsal Canada Conference, the integral role that futsal can have in the development of young soccer players’ physical, technical, and tactical abilities, has become crystal clear to me.  All aspiring Canadian soccer players who wish to improve and maximise their development in these areas should consider paying futsal and help to “move futsal forward” in this country.

I’d love to hear your thoughts about this topic.  Drop me a line here to get the conversation started.

 

 

 

 

For Coaches, For Parents, Science

The Potential Benefits of Early Specialisation in Soccer – An Argentinian Youth Development Model

In late June of 2017, I visited my friend, colleague and mentor, Rafael Carbajal, in Buenos Aires, Argentina, where he is in the final process of completing his Argentinian “A” License and validating his other “A” coaching licenses from Canada, the United States and UEFA.

During the trip I was fortunate to have been given the opportunity to observe youth academy training sessions by Huracan FC, a professional club in the Argentinian First Division and the club regarded as the best player developer in the country.

While watching an Under-13 (2005) training session, it was not hard for me to see why the club has garnered this reputation.

The players were skillful, intelligent, crafty, coordinated and fit.  They were able to connect passes in small spaces with two or even one touch, in a manner in which few Canadian teams of any age category would be able to keep up with.

As I watched them train I could not help but think to myself that whatever type of training these boys were doing – including the amount of time they spent training each day and week, and the specific training mythologies used in their training sessions – it was clearly working.

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When I spoke with Coach Carbajal and some of the other coaches and instructors from the “A” License course, I learned and interesting – albeit not surprising – fact about Huracan and other Argentinian professional youth academies: even at the younger Under-13 age categories, teams train 5 days per week.

What this means is that aspiring Argentinian soccer players, as young as 12 years of age, have a practice every day, Monday-to-Friday, plus a game on Saturday or Sunday, every week of the year.

Interestingly, the time commitment required of Argentinian professional youth academies ensures that Argentinian boys who want to become professional soccer players must commit to or “specialise” in soccer at a very young age.  They really have no choice or option to participate in any other sports, as their training and game schedule simply does not allow time for any sport other than soccer.

In Canada, this type of early specialisation in soccer or other sports is discouraged.  The Canadian Soccer Association has for the past 10 years followed the “Long Term Athlete Development” or “LTAD” model, one of the tenets of which is a recommendation that athletes to not exclusively play one sport (in this case, soccer) until the age of 16.

Proponents of LTAD typically argue that late specialisation leads to less over-use injuries, less burn-out or drop-out from sports, and better overall athletic development, as compared to early specialisation.  The professional coaches and fitness coaches I spoke with in Argentina, however, all believed that these objectives could be achieved in combination with early specialisation in soccer.

Their rationale was that, provided youth coaches and fitness coaches are trained and educated in evidence-based best practices for working with young, growing and developing soccer players, these coaches should be able to put together a curriculum and training program that allows for early specialisation in soccer without experiencing some of the proposed negative effects.

The basic level youth coaching licences in Argentina, a minimum requirement for all coaches working with young players in professional Argentinian academies, comprises a 2-year, 1400-hour course with written and practical examinations.  Principal among the scientific subjects included in the course, in which coaches must prove and demonstrate their competence, are:

  • Physiology (to understand the loading placed on players during training and games, and allow for a well-rounded physical training program)
  • Motor learning (to develop and implement training sessions that maximise players’ ability to learn to execute simple and complex soccer skills)
  • Sport psychology (to discern how the physical and psychological demands of training and games are affecting players’ minds, and how to help them reach their full mental potential); and
  • Periodisation of training (to allow for the development of a comprehensive annual training plan, with the right amount of intensity and volume of training throughout the year)

Of course, if the aforementioned potential negative effects can be avoided, young soccer players do stand to benefit greatly from some of the advantages of early specialisation in soccer – most importantly, better technical skill development and a better understanding of the tactical side of the game.

Whether or not you agree with LTAD and the late specialisation it recommends, there can be no disputing the fact that in Argentina, young soccer players are developing the required technical skills and tactical understanding of the game to perform and succeed at the highest level.   Thus, it may be possible that the Argentinian model of early specialisation in soccer, combined with knowledgeable, educated and experienced youth soccer coaches and fitness coaches, warrants consideration in Canada as well.

Ultimately, the best way of assessing the effectiveness of any type of soccer training program – physical, technical, tactical or psychological – is to watch how the players actually play the game.  In this case, the evidence in support of the effectiveness of the Argentinian model of youth development is overwhelming.  It is possible that, with the right combination of enthusiastic and passionate players with well-educated coaches and fitness coaches, early specialisation in soccer may not be such a bad thing after all.

I’d love to hear your thoughts about this topic.  Drop me a line here to get the conversation started.

Fitness, Science

3 Things Canadians Can Learn From Uruguayan Youth Soccer

I enjoyed my first opportunity to work in professional soccer this year, when I was hired as Fitness Coach for Canadian SC Uruguay, a professional soccer club in the Uruguayan Segunda (2nd Division).  I was fortunate to have been given this opportunity by Canadians SC’s head coach, Rafael Carbajal, an Uruguayan Canadian who had previously been working with the Canadian Men’s National Team.

Canadian SC is just one of over 30 professional soccer clubs from Montevideo, Uruguay’s capital city and a hotbed for talent development in the country.  As a matter of fact, the nation of Uruguay as a whole, with a population of just over 3 million people, has been excelling at player development for over 100 years, and can perhaps be considered the most successful soccer nation in the world, per-capita.

Ask any Uruguayan to back up this claim, and they will be happy to oblige.  They might start by pointing out that their nation has won 4 – not 2, but 4 World Championships – the first two being the 1924 and 1928 Olympic titles which are generally regarded to have been the top soccer competition in the world prior to the first-ever FIFA World Cup in 1930 (which they also hosted and won), as well as the 1950 FIFA World Cup in Brazil, where they upset the hosts in the final in Rio De Janeiro in one of the most famous soccer matches ever to be played.

Uruguay also has the distinction of being the most successful nation ever in the Copa America, the South American Championship tournament held every four years.  With 15 Copa America titles – the most recent of which came in 2011 – Uruguay has eclipsed even the continent’s giants Argentina (14 titles) and Brazil (8 titles).

All of this success has been achieved despite a tiny population and relatively small domestic professional league.  In fact, there is no other country in the world, per capita, that has come even close to achieving the international success that Uruguay has, and the Uruguayans seem to relish their role as soccer “underdogs”, a topic which I have written about in my blog before:

https://soccerfitnessgols.com/2016/07/08/soccer-in-uruguay-day-7-underdogs/

As a Canadian fitness coach, the experience of working in top level soccer in a country like Uruguay was invaluable for me.  During my time there, I couldn’t help but think about the stark contrasts that exist between Uruguayan and Canadian soccer.  Although I worked exclusively with the first team (adults) at Canadian SC, I also got to spend a lot of time working with and learning from the club’s youth academy coaches and fitness coaches – who work with teams from the U14-U19 age groups – and it is in these age groups where the main differences between Uruguayan and Canadian soccer are most prominent.

While there have been improvements in the Canadian youth soccer system over the past 15-20 years, we have not been able to keep pace with other nations – not just the more successful European and South American nations but even those in our own CONCACAF region – and as a result, we have not been successful in developing top class adult players to feed our national teams.

Three main aspects of Uruguayan youth soccer in particular stuck out the most as being very different from what we presently have in Canada, and they are a big reason why this was such a great learning experience for me.  Below is a summary of the three things Canadians can learn from Uruguayan youth soccer.

  1. We need to develop a soccer culture where babies, toddlers and young children are better exposed to the game.

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In Uruguay, as in almost any other country in the world, all the little kids want to be professional soccer players when they grow up.

Why do they want this?  Because from the moment they are able to see, they see soccer.  From the moment they are able to hear, they hear soccer.  From the moment they can walk – and many times much earlier than that – someone has put a ball in front of them for them to play with.  You get the idea.

The underlying reason for Uruguay’s obsession with soccer is that all of the most famous and successful Uruguayan professional and National Team players grow up plying their trade close to the homes – sometimes even literally in the backyards – of the young players aspiring to take their place in the future.  Young aspiring soccer players in Uruguay can watch games on TV, on the internet, or attend live matches close to home at a very low price, and see their heroes up close and personal, on a weekly and sometimes even daily basis.

The small geographical landmass of Uruguay combined with the centralisation of most of the soccer talent in Montevideo, means that there is great proximity between youth players and professional players.  Youth players have a very clear idea of what is required to become a professional player because they live and train very close to professional players.

All of this results in a “culture of soccer” in Uruguay, which ensures that when these youth players reach their formative years, their technical development and tactical knowledge of the game will be at the highest level possible, because they will have seen and been able to emulate the top players in the country far more often than their Canadian peers.

It is possible that, through better development and promotion of our own, Canadian domestic professional leagues (like Ontario’s League One) we may be able to develop a similar “culture of soccer” in Canada, which could then help to encourage and advance the development of young Canadian talented soccer players.

  1. We need to make our youth soccer programs, specifically from the ages of 7-13, accessible to everyone.

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Believe it or not, there is a Uruguayan version of “house league” soccer.  It’s called “Baby Futbol”, and it comes complete with all of the things you might expect to see in an amateur recreational youth soccer league.

Teams play 11v11, on a field not much smaller than a full size adult pitch, with goals of equal proportions.  There are young and relatively inexperienced coaches, and the parents on the sidelines can be heard screaming encouragement – and sometimes instructions – from miles away.

Baby Futbol is the only youth soccer program available to Uruguayan children between the ages of 7 and 13, and it is free.

That’s right – it costs parents nothing to have their children participate in Baby Futbol.

From this large pool of youth soccer players, academy coaches and scouts from all of the professional clubs in Uruguay will select the best and most talented players to participate in their academy teams programs, starting in the U14 age category.

This means that one, centralised, free youth soccer system houses all of the potential future professional players in Uruguay.  No young Uruguayan soccer player, regardless of his family’s financial resources, is denied the opportunity to play in Baby Futbol, and thus the opportunity to be identified as a potential professional soccer player is accessible to all Uruguayans.

Furthermore, identification and selection of talented players from Baby Futbol (“recreational soccer”) to professional academy teams (“competitive soccer”) in Uruguay occurs at U13, as opposed to at U8 in Canada.  Thus, talented Uruguayan players are not excluded from competitive soccer or the pathway into professional soccer at a young age.

Accessibility of all young soccer players to the professional soccer system, by way of Baby Futbol, is a key contributor to the overall success of Uruguayan soccer, because it means that there are literally no potential professional and/or National Team players who are excluded from the system.

There is potential that in Canada, better accessibility to competitive or “rep” soccer at the youth levels (ages 7-13) could lead to less exclusion of potentially talented players, and in turn strengthen our own professional and National Teams programs.

  1. We need to ensure that beyond the age of 13, coaches who work with talented young soccer players have a high standard of coach education.

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As mentioned previously, the best and most talented Uruguayan Baby Futbol players are identified by professional coaches and scouts, and placed into professional academy teams, beginning in the U14 age category.  From there, most professional clubs will have academy teams who compete in U14, U15, U16, U17 and U19 leagues, with the best U17 and U19 players eventually being called up to the clubs’ senior “First Teams.”

Coaches working in professional clubs’ academy teams are required, through the Asssociacion Uruguaya de Futbol (the Uruguayan Football Association – “AUF” for short) to obtain a Uruguayan youth coaching license, which is a 2-year diploma course comprising over 1400 hours of technical instruction, including both written and practical exams.

The content of the course has been developed by local and foreign coaches, as well as sports scientists and teachers, with background and experience at the highest levels of professional and international soccer.  Included in the curriculum are modules covering physiology, biomechanics, sport psychology, and periodization of training – and all the coaches working in professional academies in Uruguay must complete these modules and prove their knowledge and competence in these areas.

Once they reach the professional academy level – a level at which a high standard of coaching is required – talented young Uruguayan soccer players are placed in programs where they receive this high standard of coaching.

The comparative standard of coach education for coaches of competitive soccer players in Canada would be the Ontario Provincial and Canadian National “B” Licenses, each of which comprise 1 week of instruction and testing.  In Uruguay, coaches at the same relative level of competition must take a 2-year licensing course, with multiple written and practical examinations.

Perhaps, if we want to improve our ability to coach and develop our talented young soccer players beyond the age of 13 in Canada, we may need to raise the standard of our Canadian coach education programs for coaches working in these age groups.

I’d love to hear your comments and feedback about this topic.  Drop me a line here to get the conversation started.