Do you know about Peak Growth Velocity and how it relates to girls sports injuries? More importantly, does your daughter’s coach?

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Do you know about Peak Growth Velocity and how it relates to girls sports injuries? More importantly, does your daughter’s coach?

If you’ve ever spent any time with a sixth-grade class - where the girls look like Amazons as they tower over the smaller boys - you’ve seen Peak Growth Velocity in action.

Also known as Peak Height Velocity (or PHV), it’s the time, outside of infancy, when humans grow the fastest. Studies show that the overall growth during this period is roughly the same for both sexes on average, 25 centimeters for girls, 26 for boys.

The big difference is when it happens, and that’s why it’s vital for parents and girls coaches to understand PHV and its potential effect on young female athletes.  For girls, it occurs two full years earlier on average (age 11) than for boys (age 13).

It also corresponds with a significant rise in sports-related injuries. A 2014 study published in the International Journal of Sports Medicine found that during the year of peak growth velocity, girls had a 43 percent greater chance of a traumatic or overuse injury than the year before. The study also found that girls in their peak growth velocity year missed twice as many practice and game days due to injury than during the prior year.

What does this mean? Well, the bottom line is that girls are at much higher risk much earlier for growth and puberty-related injuries (such as ACL tears) than boys. Meanwhile, studies have shown that the only proven way to effectively prevent those injuries is to give kids several years of neuromuscular training before they hit the danger zone.

In coaching terms, that means that by the time young female athletes are 8 or 9 years old, their coach should already have integrated injury-preventing neuromuscular training into their practices. If coaches only learn about the injury dangers of PHV and puberty when their girls are in middle school, it’s already too late.

That’s why the Beautiful Project believes that coaches of even 2nd grade and 3rd grade girls should be trained to understand female athlete physiology and how to prevent injuries. It’s also why, in collaboration with the experts at the Competitive Athlete Training Zone (CATZ), we created the Beautiful 12 warm up. The 12 minute warmup was designed specifically for the shorter practices of grassroots and community soccer programs.

So if you’re a soccer parent, ask your daughter’s coach if her team is doing injury-preventing neuromuscular training. If not, refer them to www.beautifulgirlssoccer.com and the Beautiful: Training Girls Soccer the Boston Breakers Way video.

Or better yet, refer the president or coaching director of your daughter’s soccer program to us - we have discounts that allow soccer programs to train all their girls coaches for the price of a couple sets of corner flags.

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Want a Well Behaved, Cohesive Team? Try a Team Challenge.

If you've coached long enough, you've had THAT team. The one that can't seem to focus, with 12 attention spans seemingly going 12 ways at once. 

When you do, it's natural to feel like there aren't a lot of good options. Ignoring it is no fun for you or for them, eventually, because they're not going to learn or end up playing very well. Getting mad or being the disciplinarian can be worse - at lease someone was having fun before the yelling started. 

One proven solution we've tried that works: the Team Challenge. First, start the season by explaining that once every week, you're going to take 5 or 10 minutes at the end of the last practice of the week to do a Team Challenge. If they get pass the challenge, they get a Challenge Point. If they accumulate enough points, they will the Challenge Prize. It doesn't have to be a big deal - an ice cream outing, team headbands, something like that. 

The next step is the Challenges themselves. The key part here is to make them the most fun part of the practice. Use your imagination. Challenges we've done have included:

  • The Chain Challenge: The entire team holds hands in a circle and, as a group, must move around a cone and back in a certain amount of time while passing the ball inside the circle. The ball must keep moving and if the ball goes out of the circle, the entire circle has to move to retrieve it. (Advanced teams can juggle instead of pass.)
  • The Corner Kick Challenge: Place two Pugg goals, one near the back post, one at the far corner of the 6 yard box. Your players have a certain amount of time to get a certain number of balls into the targets in 2 bounces or less.
  • The BU Challenge: A crowd-pleaser. We euphemistically call this the "Boston University" Challenge but it really stands for "Butts Up." Coaches stand in the corners of the goal, face the net and bend forward. Players have a certain amount of time to hit a certain number of "targets" from outside the 18 yard box. Move the players as far back as necessary so it doesn't hurt too much.

Why it works: Trust us, the Challenge will become the most anticipated part of the practice week. By saying it must be earned, you can use it as motivation to stay focused, work hard, etc.

When things start getting unfocused, we'll say something like "What's this?" and make a motion with your hands like a bird flying. "What?" "That's your Challenge flying away if we don't get our focus back." After a while, all you'll have to do is the hand gesture to get your team back on track.

The other great thing about team challenges is how they build team chemistry. Your girls will cheer each other on and bask in collective achievement when the conquer a challenge, and that cohesion will also help encourage focus and hard work.

So go ahead, give it a try and tell us in the comments section how things worked out ...

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How Learning Female Athlete Physiology Made Me a Better Coach

I'd like to tell you a quick story about two girls, Jennifer and Rachel, and my education as a soccer coach.

I coached Jennifer three years before I coached Rachel. At the time I was an average parent coach, which is to say I knew some stuff about practice exercises and soccer tactics from the internet and coach training courses, but not much else. 

Late in her U11 year, Jennifer seemed to hit an athletic wall. She'd always been a valuable asset to the team - we called her "Coach" because she was such a vocal leader and had a high soccer IQ - but she suddenly seemed to be two steps slower than her teammates and was consistently getting beat by faster players during games.

"I don't know what's wrong with her," her dad said to me. "She's so out of shape. I'm trying to get her to do some extra running, but she's not that into it."

I didn't know what to say. She seemed to work hard in practice, but I didn't know what her eating or sleeping or exercise habits were away from the team, so I didn't feel qualified to give any advice. In her assessments, Jennifer got poor marks for fitness and was moved down a team the next year. She seemed to not be having fun and soon stopped playing altogether.

I didn't really think of her much until I coached Rachel. By this time I had done the research for the Beautiful Project and had spent a good deal of time talking to Dr. Kate Ackerman, the head of the Female Athlete Program at Boston Children's Hospital about young female athletes and the effects of puberty.

Watching Rachel in her U12 year was like deja vu. The girl who was once one of our team's fastest, strongest players seemed to be running in mud while everyone else was on grass. Forwards who she had always shut down were suddenly turning the corner on her.

"She's seems so slow," her dad said to me. "I don't know what to do. Is there any kind of extra training she should be doing?"

"Relax," I said. "Her body is changing. This is a phase. Don't make a big deal out of it. Just ride it out and she'll be fine."

I told him that Rachel's body geometry was changing due to her pre-puberty growth spurt. It would sort itself out, and in the meantime the important thing was to make sure she didn't get discouraged. Make sure she understands what's happening, I said, and use this time to work on her technical skills. 

Two years later, Rachel's old foot speed is back. With her polished technique, she's one of the top players in her age group. But most importantly she's still playing - and loving - playing the game and being an athlete.

A little knowledge is a wonderful thing.

 

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Organic Gatorade and Other Dishonesties in Youth Sports

 

The news that Gatorade was coming out with an organic version of its unhealthy flavored sugar water has got me thinking about other dishonesties in youth sports.

Take the "College Showcase Tournament", please. They're everywhere, selling the notion that your daughter is going to get a scooped up by a college coach and that scholarship money will follow.

Here's the reality: There are 1.5 million girls who play soccer in the US, but only 7,300 Division I and II scholarships. Many of the coaches who come to those tournaments are from Division III schools, which have no athletic scholarships. And even the schools that do have them don't have enough for the whole team - Division I schools are limited to 14 for an average roster size of 29, meaning at most each player might get a half scholarship. Division II schools are capped at 10 scholarships each, so for the average team a player might get a 1/3 scholarship. Since the average DII scholarship is $7,500, that's about $2,500, or less than the annual cost of many club soccer programs.

In other words, if your daughter plays club soccer for 8 years and ends up playing Division II college soccer, your return on investment is likely to be a whopping -100%.

Of course we could be honest and tell parents that the big benefits that their girls will get out of sports are self-esteem, better grades, better overall health, fewer high-risk behaviors and lowered risks for everything from breast cancer to obesity to osteoporosis. But apparently that doesn't sell $795-per-team tournament slots. 

Too bad. Oh, and studies have shown that good old chocolate milk is better for your athlete after games than any sports drink.

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Why “I’m Competitive” Isn’t an Excuse for Hope Solo - or Youth Coaches

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It was several years ago when I got the coach’s email, but it’s stuck with me ever since.

At the time, I was president of my local nonprofit soccer program for girls. Other coaches had reported this dad for not abiding by the no-keeping-score rule in our 2nd Grade developmental program (where we don't have keepers and we instruct parent coaches to give positive feedback for all good play - attacking, defending and scoring). They also complained he was bragging about how is team had "won" every game by a big margin.

“I can’t help it,” he wrote, by way of explaining his conduct. “I’m competitive.” My reply consisted of just a website link: “www.othsl.com.” “What’s that?” he e-mailed back. “A great outlet for your competitive streak,” I answered.

I had referred him to the New England Over the Hill Soccer League, a terrific organization that runs leagues for adult players, including many who play well into their 60s. My point was that while he was entitled to his competitiveness, he was indulging it - and himself - in the wrong place. I mean, how hard is it to be victorious in a game when the other team isn’t trying to win?

I thought back to that exchange after keeper Hope Solo’s recent suspension from the US Women’s National Team for calling Sweden “a bunch of cowards” after they beat the US playing a frustrating, bunkered-in, counterattacking style. “She said it in the heat of the moment!” her defenders cried. “She’s competitive!”

What do the two stories have in common? Competitiveness as an excuse, masquerading as a virtue. In both cases it was just a dodge to cover up a plain old lack of self-control.

Take Solo’s case. She is one of the top 20 or so female soccer players in a country of 319 million people. Does anyone really doubt that the other 19 players are just as competitive as she is? And yet they were all able to comport themselves as good teammates with dignity and proper sportswomanship, despite the frustrating bitterness of their quarterfinal Olympic loss. In fact, Solo’s career has been marred for years by incidents that illustrate her self-centered lack of control and that have nothing to do with competition on the field. (Like when she and her husband took a USWNT team van without permission and he was arrested for DUI.)

In the case of my coach friend, he was putting his own emotional needs ahead of the athletic and personal development of the girls entrusted to him by their parents and our league. By emphasizing goals scored in an empty net over other fundamental aspects of play, he was cheating his girls out of valuable soccer development at a formative age. By having them play with a different set of rules and giving them a false sense of superiority, he was setting them up to fail in 3rd grade when our league actually does start keeping score.

Unfortunately, other examples of competitive overemphasis and its negative consequences abound in youth soccer and youth sports in general. A 2015 study by the Sports & Fitness Industry Association found that participation rates have dropped in virtually every youth sport, driven to a large extent by programs that emphasize specialization and competitive success over the individual player’s enjoyment and overall development.

Competition is essential to the game, but it should be taught in gradual, managed stages and in a way that ensures maximum participation and healthy development. That means as coaches, we need to exercise our self-control and remember who we’re there for. (Hint: It’s not us.)

The kids should never be the means to an end. It’s about them.

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Defeat, Hope and Teachable Moments

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Of all the American kids playing soccer today, only 1 girl in 90,000 will ever put on a uniform for the US Women’s National Team team in the Olympics.

So if her chances are that low, why should she bother playing at all?

A dumb question, but after the US Women’s National Team’s heartbreaking loss to Sweden in the quarterfinals in Brazil and keeper Hope Solo’s controversial post-game comments, we coaches and parents find ourselves doing some familiar soul-searching about what things of value - if not gold medals - our girls bring home from the pitch. 

Breakers Academy Director Tom Durkin lists some of the best ones in Beautiful. “Self-reliance. Teamwork. Trust. Cooperation.” And the list goes on: Hard work. Preparation. Grace. Composure. Sportswomanship.

Unfortunately, today’s headlines about American soccer are all negative, and focused on Solo’s comments about the team that sent the US women home from Brazil on penalty kicks in the quarterfinals. She bitterly criticized Sweden for bunkering in and playing a defensive, counter-attacking style to neutralize the US team’s superior attacking talent and athleticism. Solo called the Swedes “a bunch of cowards” and added: “The best team did not win today.”

My 9-year-old got a soccer-themed teddy bear for her birthday the other day. She named it “Hope.” When their heroes talk, our girls are listening. So here we find ourselves in another teachable moment, searching for the words to flip a negative into a positive, to turn one of life’s disappointments into a life lesson. Well, I think those things of value Tom talks about are a good place to start.

Teamwork: Hope is wrong here. The US may have had better players, but the Swedes were the superior team. Coach Jill Ellis had it right, Sweden and Coach Pia Sundhage had a game plan they thought would work against the Americans and together as a team “they executed it well” and won. 

Preparation: After going down a goal, the US started showing signs of frustration with Sweden’s playing style. But they had ample time to prepare and should have had a game plan that would have let them eventually break through the bunker without leaving themselves vulnerable to the counterattack. The US has by far the biggest talent pool of female soccer players in the world and they are ranked No. 1. They know that weaker teams (especially well-coached ones) are going to bunker in.

Composure: When the game went to penalty kicks, it wasn’t the US – with the best collection of strikers in the world – that looked like the more confident and composed side. Maybe it had to do with expectations; the Americans were 16-0-2 in games leading up to the Olympics and they looked like a team carrying the impossible burden of being expected never to lose. Being prepared to deal emotionally with both winning and losing is as valuable a skill in life as it is in sports – it frees you up to give your best effort.

Grace: The Latin roots of the English word “compete” come from two words: com which means “together” and peterewhich means “to strive.” As Tom points out, that is the Olympic ideal of competition: We strive against each other to make each other better, not to win at all costs. Teaching the true meaning of competition helps our girls embrace the essence of sportswomanship. The girl in the other color uniform is not the enemy – she is a fellow competitor who deserves our friendship and thanks for making us better.

What lessons will you teach your daughter today?

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Want your girls to be better with the ball? Help make it a relationship.

Here’s a tip for any coach who wants their girl players to be better with the ball: Have them give their ball a name.

One of our favorite family soccer balls is a red and black Nike that one of my daughters calls “Pepperoni” for its resemblance to the pizza topping. We’ve spent also productive seasons working with “Leo,” and “Eddie." The newest family member is “Eagle,” a US-themed size 4 Copa America ball.

In the Beautiful instructional DVD, legendary female players like Sydney Leroux and Cat Whitehill talk about how crucial it is for girls to build strong relationships to support their soccer development, including their relationships with their coaches and their relationships with their teammates.

But why not a relationship with the ball? There will be times when the ball will frustrate you. It will also bring you and your teammates great joy. There will be times when it will do exactly what you want it to and times when it will do the opposite. There will even be times when it will hurt you.

Sounds like a relationship to me.

The idea behind giving a name is to developing the bond between the soccer ball and the girl, a comfort and confidence level leading to a stronger bond between the girl and the game. These days many people probably think the whole ball vs doll thing is a gender cliche, but there’s even scientific evidence supporting the notion that girls can really benefit from getting a little extra help building a good rapport with the ball.

A few years ago, Texas A&M University researchers were trying to find out if gender preferences for so-called boys toys and girls toys were the result of socialization or whether the connection went deeper. Through experiments with very young children and monkeys, they found that kids are literally wired for toys that match their hormones. The higher the testosterone level in 4-month-old boy, for example, the more time he spent looking at boy toys like trucks and balls. Infant girls and female monkeys, meanwhile, spent more time looking at dolls and other toys stereotypically associated with relationships and nurturing.

Why does that matter? Well, the National Association for the Education of Young Children conducted another study, this time to see what toys were best for optimal physical, cognitive and artistic development. They found that children who tended to play with strongly gender-associated toys - like soldiers, guns and vehicles for boys, and dolls, costumes and jewelry for girls - lagged developmentally behind children who played with mostly gender-neutral or moderately masculine toys.

One of the best gender neutral/slightly masculine toys? A soccer ball.

And that’s why having a young girl name her soccer ball works: It gives her the right toy for optimal development, while also addressing her hard-wired desire to build relationships. Try it, I bet you’ll get results.

Of course there is a down side. When a “relationship” ball gets lost, it can be a big deal. Remember when Tom Hanks lost Wilson in “Cast Away?” So try and make sure the ball comes home after every practice.

 

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Is Soccer Really What We're Selling?

Don't get me wrong. Soccer isn't just a great game. It's the best game. The Beautiful game. The world's most popular game. 

But the question for those of us involved in coaching, teaching and supporting girls soccer is this: Is the game is actually the most important thing we're selling when we encourage families to sign up for soccer? If the answer to that question is yes, we're probably shooting short of the goal. 

The sign in the picture above is part of a wonderful marketing campaign developed for my hometown grassroots, nonprofit soccer club for girls, Newton Girls Soccer, by the remarkable Alyssa Toro. Alyssa is chief creative officer at Connelly Partners, a national branding, marketing and advertising firm whose clients have included, Puma, the Four Seasons Hotels, American Express and Samsonite. NGS is also incredibly lucky to have her as a Board member.

Alyssa surveyed a bunch of folks in the program about what she thought NGS really stood for, what it was really about. In short, what our values were. That led to our current "We Believe ..." campaign - in addition to the banner in the picture, there are also signs that say "We Believe In Instilling Positive Values From Our Coaches To Our Girls" and "We Believe In Fun First And Foremost When Playing The Game Of Soccer." 

When you get to "we believe" you're already well past a game of kicking a ball, as wonderful as that may be. You're well into the intangibles, the life benefits that girls get from playing soccer and other organized sports through their high school years. Study after study has shown that girls who play sports get better grades on average than girls that don't. They have better careers after they leave school. They make friends more easily and have high self-esteem. They have fewer high-risk behaviors, including early experimentation with substance abuse and early sexual activity. They have lower rates of obesity, depression and many other health problems. 

It seems like every soccer tournament out there now is a "College Showcase." But how do we showcase the once-shy girl who found her confidence and her voice? The ex-junk-food-loving girl who started eating healthier because she didn't want let her teammates down on the field? The formerly-struggling student who learned to transfer her on-field work habits to the classroom?

I like to remind my fellow coaches sometimes that the thing to remember about youth sports is that when you win a game or a tournament, you don't actually win anything. But helping a girl become a strong, healthy, confident woman? That's a win.

It's what I believe, anyway.

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Let’s ban the Ray Bans when talking to our players

(Image by keithminer. Used under a Creative Commons license.)

(Image by keithminer. Used under a Creative Commons license.)

Girls soccer coaches need to build trust relationships with their players. Since the eyes are the windows to the soul, girls can have a hard time connecting with a coach who’s hiding behind a pair of wraparound Oakleys.

Becky Manley, the Beautiful Project’s expert teen coach and authority on young female athlete psychology, says a girl’s development both on the field and off is “anchored in her relationships with others.” Anything that puts up a barrier between the player and the coach - like yelling, a standoffish attitude or a pair of shades - gets in the way of that connection.

Don’t get us wrong, UV protection for both the skin and the eyes is very important for overall health, so sunscreen, a hat with a bill or a brim, and yes, sunglasses, are all essential pieces of coaching equipment.

But coaches should take off the shades and make direct eye contact when they are addressing players individually or as a team, during practices or games, to help build the kind of strong relationships essential for coaching success.

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Digital Downloads Go Live Next Week

Exciting news! Even though the DVD is still currently in production (but available for preorders) next week "Beautiful: Teaching Girls Soccer the Boston Breakers Way" will be available for purchase via digital download on Vimeo on Demand beginning next week. The download will work across multiple platforms, so you can take the Beautiful Project with you to the practice pitch on your smart phone or tablet. 

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Production Begins Soon!

 We received word yesterday that the US Soccer Federation has accepted the final edits to “Beautiful: Teaching Girls Soccer the Boston Breakers Way." 

Now that “Beautiful” has the backing of both US Soccer and the NWSL, we will be putting the project into production as soon as possible. We are currently in the process of getting delivery dates from our DVD manufacturer and creating of a digital download that can be played across multiple devices.

More information on version options and delivery schedules will be coming very soon, so stay tuned. Thanks for your interest and support!

Ralph Ranalli, Founder

The Beautiful Project

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