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With Team Chicago players and families packing the stands, Team Chicago coaches patrolling the sidelines, and Team Chicago players starring on the field, last night’s battle between the two High School juggernauts Neuqua Valley and Waubonsie Valley turned into a bit of a Team Chicago show.

Neuqua earned a deserved 2-1 win in a tough battle on a bumpy pitch, and all the goals were scored and assisted by current and former Team Chicago players. Waubonsie took an early lead when former Team Chicago Academy-ManU player Kristen Dodson crossed the ball for current Team Chicago Academy-ManU player Kristen Brots to slot it home, leaving Team Chicago Academy-ManU GK Courtney Keefer without a chance to make the save.

The lead was quickly erased when Team Chicago Academy-Botafogo player Zoey Goralski crossed it to fellow Team Chicago Academy-Botafogo player Gianna Dal Pozzo who headed it beautifully into the top corner. Dal Pozzo then got the eventual game-winner off an assist by Team Chicago Academy-Botafogo co-captain Hope D’Addario just before the half.

Neuqua Valley Head Coach Joe Moreau – who is also the Head Coach of Team Chicago Academy-Jaguars – is off to an impressive 6-0 start, while Waubonsie Valley – with assistants Peter Lambert and Joshua Robinson who are Head Coaches of Team Chicago Academy-Internacional and Team Chicago Academy-Palmeiras respectively – is off to a 2-2 start.

This great rivalry promises to deliver another exciting installment when Julie Bergstrom’s defending State Champions Wabonsie Valley looks to avenge last night’s loss when they are to meet in the State Playoffs, while Joe Moreau’s Neuqua squad will continue their quest for an undefeated season.

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How Sports May Focus the Brain!

Posted by Phil Nielsen at Mar 28, 2011 4:26PM PDT ( 0 Comments )

An interesting NY Times article about additional benefits of being an athlete.

Who can cross a busy road better, a varsity wrestler or a psychology major? That question, which seems to beg for a punch line, actually provided the motivation for an unusual and rather beguiling new experiment in which student athletes were pitted against regular collegians in a test of traffic-dodging skill. The results were revelatory.

For the study, published last week in The Journal of the American College of Sports Medicine, researchers at the Beckman Institute for Advanced Science and Technology at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign recruited 36 male and female students, ages 18 to 22. Half were varsity athletes at the university, a Division I school, and they represented a wide variety of sports, including cross-country running, baseball, swimming, tennis, wrestling, soccer and gymnastics. Some possessed notable endurance; others, strength and power; and still others, precision and grace.

The rest of the volunteers were healthy young collegians but not athletes, from a variety of academic departments.

All showed up at various times to a specially appointed lab, where a manual treadmill was situated amid three 10-foot-square video screens. One screen stood in front of the treadmill, with the others at either side. Donning goggles that gave the video images on the screens depth and verisimilitude, the students were soon immersed in a busy virtual cityscape.

When the immersive video began, the students found themselves plopped into an alley between buildings. From there, they were instructed to walk toward a busy street and, once they’d arrived, gauge oncoming traffic. The virtual cars whizzed by in both directions at daunting speeds, between 40 and 55 miles per hour.

When it felt safe, the students were to cross the road. They were told to walk, not run, but had a limit of 30 seconds from the time they left the alley. In some attempts, they had no distractions. In others, they listened to music through headphones or, emulating a common campus practice, chatted on a cellphone with a friend. Each volunteer attempted 96 crossings.

Success varied. “Over all, there was an 85 percent completion rate,” in which students made it to the other side of the road without incident, said Laura Chaddock, a graduate student at the university and lead author of the study. Failure meant impact — thankfully virtual.

The student athletes completed more successful crossings than the nonathletes, by a significant margin, a result that might be expected of those in peak physical condition. But what was surprising — and thought-provoking — was that their success was not a result of their being quicker or more athletic. They walked no faster than the other students. They didn’t dash or weave gracefully between cars. What they did do was glance along the street a few more times than the nonathletes, each time gathering slightly more data and processing it more speedily and accurately than the other students.

“They didn’t move faster,” said Art Kramer, the director of the Beckman Institute and a leader in the study of exercise and cognition, who oversaw the research. “But it looks like they thought faster.”

René Marois, the director of the Human Information Processing Laboratory at Vanderbilt University, who was not involved with the experiment, said, “This is a very interesting study.” The fact that the athletes displayed no outsize physical coordination during the crossings “was surprising,” he wrote in an e-mail. Upon reflection, he added that the finding did have a certain intuitive logic. “To the extent that athletes, in their sport, must routinely make split-second decisions in often very complex environments (e.g., whether to pass or kick the incoming soccer ball), it would make sense to me that they would have superior skill sets in processing the fast-paced information to successfully cross the street.”

Interestingly, though, until this study, no experiment had looked at whether being adept at sports would translate into success at a real-world everyday task like crossing the street. Most studies have more narrowly examined whether and why expert athletes are good at athletic things. A study published last month by researchers in China, for instance, found that professional badminton players, when shown video clips of a match, could predict with uncanny accuracy where the shuttlecock would land. While watching the videos, they also displayed considerably more electrical activity in brain areas associated with attention and memory than recreational players did. Playing elite badminton had made them better able to anticipate what would happen during badminton play.

Would the badminton pros also be capable of navigating crowded city streets better than the amateurs? The new Beckman Institute study would suggest yes — and quite possibly because of similar brain responses. Although the Illinois researchers did not directly measure electrical activity in the volunteers’ brains, it seems likely, Ms. Chaddock says, that the constant multitasking and information processing demanded by athletics increases both the capacity of the athletes’ mental information processing systems and their speed.

Of course, it’s also possible that sports didn’t make the athletes better at information processing. Instead, they may have been blessed with naturally fine processing abilities and, as a result, became accomplished athletes. “I’d guess,” Dr. Kramer said, “that to some degree it’s both.” But, he added, the athletes handled the crossings better than the nonathletes, regardless of whether their sport required exquisite timing and tactical thinking — which strongly suggests, he said, that physical training does reshape the brain.

The researchers hope at some point to study that issue in more depth, but even now, the takeaway seems clear. Practicing a sport, whether it’s running, swimming, tennis or perfecting a back flip, may sharpen your concentration and increase your ability to dodge through a busy intersection without incident.

One caveat, though: keep cellphones pocketed. Listening to music didn’t increase the number of accidents, but chatting on a phone did, even for athletes. No amount of sports training, Ms. Chaddock said, seems likely to make walking and talking in traffic a wise move.

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Frustrated High School player!

Posted by Phil Nielsen at Mar 28, 2011 1:01PM PDT ( 0 Comments )

The following is an E-mail we just received from a parent of a frustrated H.S. player in reference to the last posting about teaching good soccer.

This type of frustration is found in many H.S. programs, but it is fair to say that some of the best H.S. soccer is being played at some of our local high schools. Also, one has to remember that H.S. soccer provides a whole slew of other benefits and experiences that cannot be replicated by club soccer.

Finally, Team Chicago Academy-Jaguars & Neuqua Valley H.S. Head Coach Joe Moreau made an excellent point at last year’s panel discussion about H.S. soccer when he stated:“I don’t buy it when players tell me that they got nothing out of the experience. There is always something to be gained from playing in a different environment. It is up to each player to make sure that they get something out of each of their experiences”. Truer words have never been spoken.

Here is the E-mail we received today – edited to protect the sender’s identity.

“I hope the “off” season is treating you well and this article definitely struck a cord with XX and myself.

While X H.S. is out to a decent start, watching these games is painful beyond belief in that playing the right way does not seem to be encouraged and bad play tends to be rewarded. The first two schools that we played are considered to be a couple of the better teams in the area and they seemed to be keen on the kickball style of soccer just like us.

Perhaps this is just a High School sort of mentality to just win no matter how bad it looks, but I am hoping that when it comes to the possibility of XX playing college there are programs out there that stress playing properly?

I am concerned with the present because I can definitely see the frustration building with XX in that she knows (not that she does it all the time by any means! :-) ) what TC has taught over the past years is correct and what she is hearing now is clearly the opposite. After every game now when she hears the team being told they did well she just thinks to herself that at TC we would have been running laps if we played like that!

Any words of encouragement or thoughts would be helpful."

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Coaching Good Soccer Takes Patience!

Posted by Phil Nielsen at Mar 25, 2011 7:42PM PDT ( 0 Comments )

Here is a new article from Soccer America’s Youth Soccer Insider:

Interview by Mike Woitalla

Tom Howe helped found St. Louis’ Scott Gallagher SC in 1976 and coached future stars such as Tim Ream, Brad Davis and Pat Noonan. One of his alums, Cal coach Kevin Grimes, calls Howe “a legend, one of the best youth coaches ever.” Last year, after Scott Gallagher merged with Busch SC and Metro United, Howe left and started a new club, Woodson City Rangers. Howe, a St. Louis product himself who starred at SIU-Edwardsville and played in the old NASL, spoke to us for the Youth Soccer Insider’s ongoing interview series with leaders of U.S. youth clubs.

SOCCER AMERICA: If you had a magic wand, how would you use it to improve youth soccer in America?

TOM HOWE: I wish everybody would try and play like Barcelona. If all the clubs across the country did that you’d have some pretty smart players when they hit the ages of 18, 19, 20.

And there’d be more people wanting to watch soccer in this country. Barcelona’s the best team I’ve ever seen. They’re just fun to watch.

Another thing about Barcelona — they don’t have a lot of these gigantic athletes who everybody wants to get these days.

SA: What’s the key to playing like Barcelona?

TOM HOWE: The ability to play in tight spaces. You spend tons of time in playing in small, tight areas, and then when you get on the big field it’s not a big deal.

I think more teams need work on the possession game. All the best teams in the world over the years have been great technical teams – like Spain, Barcelona. Teams like that play the best soccer.

At the youth level, too many people play more to win. My point is, if you teach your kids to play like Barcelona you’re eventually going to win.

SA: But while you’re learning to play like that you might not win …

TOM HOWE: That’s exactly right. Learning to play like that takes a long time, but once you get it, you’re going to be good. The problem is a lot of people don’t have the patience.

You tell your young players don’t boot it no matter how much pressure you’re under. We want you to get good at this. And at a certain age, you know what, they learn how to deal with it.

Look at how many players we have in this country. At this stage we should be a lot better than we are.

SA: Over the years, have you seen American youth teams playing better soccer?

TOM HOWE: At the youth level, I still see a lot of long balls — not from all teams. There are more and more better teams each year, but I wish more would try to play good soccer.

We play against teams that boot the ball a lot, and they might beat you. But they won’t beat you five years from now.

You’re going to lose until you get to a certain age. Then you get to a certain level you’re going to be really good. You’re going to play the game the right way – and it’s a beautiful game when it’s played right. I don’t think it’s such a beautiful game when it’s played in a different way.

I can hardly watch college soccer except for a couple teams. Akron — I like watching them play. They play well and they won the national championship playing like that. Why do a couple of teams play like that and nobody else does?

SA: Tim Ream is a remarkably good young American defender in that he relies more on smarts than brawn and keeps possession for his team after he wins the ball. He said you were his biggest influence as a coach in his youth days …

TOM HOWE: He was on one of our last really good [Scott Gallagher] teams. He said that because he learned that at Gallagher, where we made our defenders pass it out of the back. We’d get criticized for passing too much.

I think when you play like that you get good at it. I think that’s the proper way to approach it. Timmy’s just a very good passer out of the back. I think that’s why Timmy’s so calm on the ball. He’s been doing that since he was little.

SA: Why did you leave Scott Gallagher to form a new club?

TOM HOWE: A few other guys and I were with Gallagher from the beginning and it was a real close-knit club. Everybody was really good friends. In the last seven or eight years it just became a business. To me, it’s just not Scott Gallagher anymore.

SA: The trend does seem to be creating big, “all-service” clubs that are clubs-slash-leagues – but you’re going with the small club model …

TOM HOWE: And we’re going to keep it small.

SA: What about the economies-of-scale rationale that by putting as many players under the same umbrella as possible you can cut costs?

TOM HOWE: I’ll tell you this, when you have the kids on the 10th and 11th team, and they’re all paying the same, something’s wrong because they’re not getting the same training.

I just don’t like it. All those guys running the big clubs, they can say what they want, but they’re all making a lot of money. And the more players they bring in, the more money they make.

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How Club Structure Impacts Development

Posted by Phil Nielsen at Mar 22, 2011 10:29AM PDT

The following is an article from Soccer America’s Youth Soccer Insider:

How Club Structure Impacts Development

While the coach interacting with the players on a daily basis is the key influencer in their individual development, there are many structural factors surrounding the club that will impact the likelihood of a player reaching his or her potential.

Some factors are more obvious than others, but having an understanding of how club structure impacts growth is helpful both: (i) as a club director considering how to build your organization; and (ii) as a parent looking to make long-term decisions about where your child should play. Some examples:

  • Controlled Coaching Turnover: In general, it is very difficult for a coach to remain with the same group of players for more than four years. Over time, the messages from the coach tend to get stale (since they’ve been heard so frequently), and the opinions of the coach about individual players (and of the players about the coach) tend to become rigid and inflexible. For this reason, controlled changes over time within the coaching staff working with a team are important.

At the pivotal skill development age groups of U12-U14, where players change physically and mentally very quickly, it is advisable that the coaching staff changes somewhat even after two years. When you see the same coaches staying with the same group of players for six-seven years, (which many of us have done at one time or another), it is usually a sign of a very special relationship between the coach and a group of players, or a lack of depth in the club’s coaching pool.

  • Coaching Development: Just as coaches should be in the “business” of developing soccer players, clubs should be in the “business” of developing soccer coaches. Clubs that take seriously the need to develop their own coaches tend to be better at developing soccer players.

Clubs can help develop coaches in many ways, for example: (i) using younger coaches as assistants with more experienced coaches; (ii) having senior coaches regularly observe and assess sessions run by younger coaches; or (iii) having a required continuing education program for all coaches within the club.

  • A “Program” Structure: The model for building a successful soccer club in the 1990s involved having one coach for one team, where, within this team, the coach was king and almost entirely independent. This model has become outdated.

Now, the most enlightened clubs are structuring their teams and staff into “programs” that cover multiple age groups. This structure means that one staff of coaches is responsible for several teams over multiple age groups (U12-U14, U15-U18, etc.). This structure: (i) ensures developmental continuity over time; (ii) allows coaches to specialize in coaching different age groups; (iii) provides multiple coaching perspectives at each age group; and (iv) allows for more roster flexibility and movement of players between teams.

  • Training and Roster Flexibility: The clubs that are most serious about player development have a player-centered, not a team-centered, approach when it comes to where players train and play. This is most obvious by looking at the number of players who are playing or training with older players within the club.

The opportunity to train with older players, and for the most special players the ability to regularly “play-up,” is a key factor in individual development. In the best environments, this means that there is regular movement of players between various age groups and levels in training and in games. (Of course the leagues that the teams participate in must have rules allowing this type of roster flexibility in competition in order to allow playing-up.)

  • A Developmental Base and History: There are some very “successful” clubs in this country that are very good at recruiting entire teams from other clubs at older age groups, putting them in the same jersey, and then winning games. This “recruitment” model is very different than a “developmental” model.

While it is a reality that the best clubs will attract better players over time, and that this attraction tends to occur more at older age groups (U14 and up) when the disparity in development between clubs begins to show, the core of any successful youth team should consist of “homegrown” players.

A club with (i) a vibrant youth program, potentially even a recreational base at U6-U10, and (ii) a history of successful players with 8-plus years in the club, is typically better at developing players than those without these elements. (On a similar note, clubs with competitive adult or U20/U23 teams provide good opportunities for “senior” youth players — U17 and U18 — to be challenged by training or competing with men and women.)

  • A Professional Management Approach: Successful businesses are led by individuals who are hired for their expertise in a particular field and then are given the freedom to make decisions.

Successful soccer clubs are led by coaches hired for their developmental expertise, and then given the freedom to make developmental decisions without undue outside influence. While the involvement of parental expertise can be very positive in certain aspects of club management (financial management and controls, facility development, etc.), when untrained parents or parental boards become involved in decisions regarding team structure, roster selection, and league/competition participation and scheduling, bad decisions from a developmental perspective are almost always eventually made.

At the best clubs, the governing body of the organization hires the Director of Coaching, allows him or her to structure the program based on their own expertise, and then holds him or her accountable for the developmental outcomes of players and coaches.

(Christian Lavers is the Executive Vice President at US Club Soccer. He holds the highest coaching licenses in the United States – the USSF “A” License, the USSF “Y” License, and the NSCAA Premier Diploma, and is the USSDA Director and ECNL Director with FC Milwaukee Nationals in Wisconsin.)