Shortly after a practice or game ends, all players should participate in the collective ritual that I simply call the "aaaaahhhh."
Typically, "aaaaahhhh" is the sound that players make when they take off their cleats, socks and shinguards and slip on a cool pair of flip-flops. In Northern California, we can usually get away with flip-flops. But in other parts of the country and depending on the time of year, other footwear may be more appropriate.
The "aaaaahhhh" ritual benefits players as well as parents and coaches. For players:
* After a long, hard practice in which you have given 100 percent effort, you want to wind down and put soccer behind you and reward yourself for a job well done. There is no better feeling than freeing your wet and smelly feet from your cleats, stretching your toes out, and then having them touch the nice, cool grass. There is only word that can describe this feeling ... "aaaaahhhh."
* Conversely, when you put on your cleats before a game or practice, this is the players' signal to start focusing on soccer and the job at hand. All goofing off and messing around should cease. You are now at work and ready to give 100 percent effort and attention. Putting on the cleats is the equivalent of a parent sitting in front of the computer at work, a fireman answering an alarm, or a teacher calling the class to order when the first-period bell rings. It is time to go to work to learn and improve.
* The same is true of games. When those cleats are put on, it is time to focus on the game. When the game is done, reward yourself for your effort. Getting out of your cleats is extremely important when you have multiple games in one day. After the first game, slip on your flip-flops and relax. Soccer is done for a while. Take a break.
* Your kids will learn that there is a time and place for everything. At practice, they should be there to learn and improve -- just like at school. When the cleats come off, soccer is done.
* Flip-flops will save money. There is nothing that I hate worse than seeing my kids walking around the parking lot or mall in their cleats. Plus, it can't be comfortable.
For coaches, try incorporating the collective "aaaaahhhh" ritual. Make sure they have your undivided attention when their cleats are on. When they are off, that is their time. Your practice should run smoother and hopefully your players will be more focused and ready for the start of a game.
(Alex Koswants to improve soccer in the United States. His experiences as a player, coach, referee, parent, and fan are shared in his blog entitled Improving Soccer in the United States. He is also the inventor of the soccer training device called Loopball. This article first appeared in his blog.)