When you're moving with the current, you can afford to relax. When the current is flowing opposite of the direction you want to go, you may have to paddle like crazy. A mental image of yourself in a canoe on a powerful river is useful for understanding how time can affect the outcome of a match - or even of a practice. Learning how to manage the clock is one of those things we learn from youth sports, and it's one of those things that really matters. Let's talk about it.
The Many Clocks in Soccer
I'm betting that you thought that I would be talking about managing the clock during game time. Of course, I'm going to talk about that in a minute or two, but I wouldn't be giving you the full picture without first showing you a few more of the clocks relevant to a youth soccer career or explaining how good clock management translates into real life. After all- we're not just about winning youth soccer games here are we?
The first clock is the Development Clock. As a youth soccer expert, you know that the clock in the United States starts at age 3 and runs until age 18. Every season, different things are relevant to kids as a result of their physical, mental, and emotional maturity. I've spoken about this in many previous shows that you can find on this site, so I'll move on to the next clock.
The second clock is the Registration Clock. It may not seem like it matters when you register, but as Club President who's served as Director for programs, Registrar, and Treasurer, it does. Late registrations are a nightmare for clubs and they curb a club's ability to be creative about programmings. The sooner your club knows how many players of what ages they will have, the sooner they can start the search for qualified coaches, reserve the fields, make contracts with referees and order equipment - to name a few things. We all do our best to guess what we're going to be working with, but I can say with confidence that late registrations have definitely affected the quality of programming and additional support that players could have had, but didn't because the clock ran out of time.
The third clock, I will call the Fuel Clock. By fuel, I have to combine food and water. Whether an athlete is leading up to a practice or a game, timing fuel and hydration is important. I've often talked about the raisin-in-a-shot-glass effect. Drop a raisin in a 5 gallon drum of water and pull it right back out again, and all you have is a wet raisin. Drop that same raisin in a shot glass of water and let it soak overnight, and it'll plump back up like a grape. The body's cells work in a similar way. Hydration needs to start slowly the day before a match or a practice. Taking in water slowly over time has a much more positive effect than slamming 32 ounces before running out onto the pitch. The slow method will properly hydrate our body's cells and give us plenty of temperature regulation and energy. The slam method will just slosh around in our stomachs, give us a tummy ache, and get dumped right back out again through our kidneys.
Food timing is important too. Heavy proteins are great maybe after a match to help with recovery. But before a match, fast acting carbs are a better fit. Stop eating two hours before a match or a practice to ensure the intestines can finish their work and the blood your muscles need is available.
The fourth clock I'll call the Recovery Clock. This is one of the most overlooked and least talked about clocks in youth sports, but it's super important. Practice and games cause fatigue and break down muscle and connective tissue. Rest gives the body a chance to rebuild - hopefully to an even strong state than before the event. Professional teams going on the road will often try to pick up some road matches before the big event. Coaches want players to get accustomed to the rigors of games stacked one after the other without adequate rest. Playing without recovery has a profound effect on a team's performance, so be sure to leave plenty of time on the clock for recovery.
The fifth clock is the Practice Clock. In youth soccer, practice may last anywhere from 1 to 2 hours. The numbers of practices per week and the length of practices is informed by the age and competition level of the team. Team practice time is important for working on team tactics, team building, and other group dynamics. It should be supplemented with individual practice time to work on fitness and individual skills.
Youth coaches need to be aware of the clock and adjust practice sessions to accommodate the team they are coaching. If a team isn't understanding a particular lesson, then, to make the most of the team time available, coaches sometimes need to adjust the session. 90 minutes is not a lot of time when trying to get a team to work together as a single unit. Sometimes, it's better to consider larger blocks of time to transferring knowledge and skill. So for example, a coach might look at three weeks or twice-per-week 90 minute practices and conclude that they have 9 hours total to teach a certain thing. They can adjust each individual practice session to allow for recovery, absorption of the lessons, between-practice individual training, and so forth.
Finally, we will talk about the Game Clock. When someone in the game of soccer talks about Managing the Clock, it's usually in the context of a game that we're referring to. I'll go into managing the Game Clock in just a minute.
How Does Managing the Clock Really Matter?
As with everything that I talk about, managing the clock in youth sports is just another thing that kids learn from youth sports that can be applied later on in life. From planning, as in the case of the Development Clock and the Registration Clocks; to personal responsibility, as in the case of the Fuel Clock and Recovery Clock; to making things happen in every day life as in the case of the Practice Clock and Game Clock; time management skills learned and applied in the youth sports environment are important.
Young players who can get a sense of what it means to plan ahead, consider the environment they're stepping into, take care of themselves, and make things happen on match day will be exponentially better suited to perform in the real world. It's no small thing to master the Clock in life. Youth sports gives us ample opportunity to help kids learn how to do that.
Managing the Game Clock
I know that you might be one of the many who come to this episode with an interest in the game day match clock, so let's dive into that a bit. I'm excited by the idea that you might appreciate the beautiful game a little more after we do!
A typical 11-a-side youth soccer match comes with a 30 minute warm up, two 40-minute halves, and a 2-5 minute half time. We can expect to spend a minimum of two hours on the pitch for each game. 80 to 90 minutes of that will be actually playing the game.
Score Matters. A team that has a comfortable score advantage has time on their side. The more the clock winds down, the more certain a win in their favor. A team playing with the advantage is going to be thinking about slowing the game down. They do this by taking a little longer to fetch an errant ball, taking a little longer to serve a ball back into play, or taking a longer, more circuitous route around the pitch to the goal. They may even go into full possession mode and play a game of keep away with the opponent - seeking to minimize the amount of time a dispossessed team has with the ball and working towards putting more in the net.
A team that has a score disadvantage will be doing the opposite. They want as many minutes as they can to set up some plays and put the ball in the net. They will hustle to the ball, reset quickly after a score, keep the ball in play, and pressure the opponent hard to give up the ball. All of this should make sense, right? This is the big picture.
On a smaller scale, games are won and lost in seconds. You may have heard this before and not understood what people mean. I'll try to explain.
The first person to the ball has a better chance of winning it and putting their team on the attack. Balls are won and lost in micro-seconds. Being just 1 second faster than your opponent means you might get the first touch on the ball and give your team possession. Fitness, speed, and motivation all come into play when trying to be the first one to the ball. Run out of steam or not "want" the ball badly enough and the person you're playing against will win the ball and put your team on the defensive.
There is about a 5-6 second window of time as possession transitions between teams that a team managing the clock can take advantage of. It takes time for most youth players to get control of the ball, get a sight picture of the field, find a teammate or some open space and pass or run to start the attack. Likewise, it takes time for a defending team who recently won the ball to realize that they are now on the attack and move into attacking formation.
If a defending team - recently dispossessed of the ball and already in attacking formation - can pressure quickly and either regain possession or keep a player newly in possession from turning or getting set up for an attack, they have a higher than average chance or taking possession again. This high pressure has to happen int he first 2-3 seconds for it to be effective. Likewise, if a newly defending team can recognize that they've lost the ball and move quickly to cut off passing or movement options for the team that just won the ball, they can shut down an attack before it gets started. Ideally, the defending team wants to recognize the loss of the ball and cut off the new attacking team's options within 5 seconds of losing the ball.
These seconds are important. The next soccer match you watch, see if you can spot these moments in a game and see how the attacking and defending teams use them to their advantage, or not.
Tools The Help With Managing the Clock
- Formally educated coaches should be good resources for learning about the Development Clock. Other resources that give good summaries of age appropriate development in the US include United Soccer Coaches, and US Youth Soccer. Each have these organizations have age appropriate development models you can spend some time with. I also talk more about keeping training age appropriate in Episode #3 of this show.
- Mom and dad are great for setting examples for how to manage the Registration Clock. By involving kids in the planning process, kids will learn the importance of thinking ahead and being respectful of their team mates and coaches.
- Fitness, nutrition information, and an episode I did on the profound effects of dehydration on performance, can all help with mastering the Fuel Clock.
- Books like the ones Dan Blank wrote on Pressure and the one he wrote on Possession can be great resources for understanding the transition moments and when and how to apply pressure to keep possession and win more games.
- Getting into shape, watching more soccer, and becoming more familiar with the game can all help young players understand how to take advantage of key moments during a game and to manage the clock during games more effectively.