Youth Soccer

Youth Soccer: We’re Doing it Wrong, Part 5

Scott Pugh continues his series discussing some of the most important problems facing youth soccer (between the ages of about 5-13). Much of the ideas and content are derived from the work of Paul Mairs and Richard Shaw in their essential book, Coaching Outside the Box. Click on the following links for parts onetwo, three, and four of the series.

Positions and playing time

“I play left midfield.”

When I ask my patients about their soccer experiences I often hear children, some as young as 7, identify themselves as “defenders” or “strikers.” This is not good for young players, and it’s another sign that we’re doing it wrong.

One of the most significant advancements in world football came out of the Dutch concept of totaalvoetbal or “total football” wherein any outfield player could be moved into any position and maintain the tactical game plan. The values of this system continue to prove important today at the highest levels where a striker is expected to be the first defender when losing the ball, and defenders are expected to have passing vision and 1v1 skills to get out of tight situations.

While tactically important for professionals, these “well-rounded” skills are absolutely critical for young players to be successful in soccer. Playing striker gives children more opportunities to shoot on goal, find space and attack 1v1. The midfield offers opportunities to transition in tight spaces and increase awareness in all directions. In defense, children get more chances to defend 1v1, tackle away 50-50 balls, and position to prevent goals.

All of these skills will improve a player’s abilities no matter what position he or she eventually gravitates towards in their later teen years. Yet too often, we see coaches labeling children into one position at a young age and limiting their opportunities for learning. Why would they do this? Because they want to win, of course.

Some coaches, driven more by the desire to win than to improve their players, will place their biggest/strongest players at central defense and center forward. That way they increase the chances of their team producing goals-for and preventing goals-against. At the same time, they will place their players with less-developed abilities into wide areas, knowing that mistakes here will cost the team less.

But by trying to “hide” their weaker players, what are they doing for their development? And what about the stronger players? What does the sweeper learn other than to kick it long, bypassing the weaker players, to the center forward who may get better at shooting but never learns to win a tackle on defense?

This tactic is criticized widely among many elite coaches, including US Soccer’s own Claudio Reyna who notes, “The inclination for our coaches to put their stars in the middle is one reason why our country often has a problem finding talented players to fill the other positions on the field. And it explains why a lot of young stars fade when they hit a higher level.”

Even the “Special One,” Jose Mourinho, echos these ideas: “At this level who knows? A kid that’s now playing central defender may in 4 or 5 years be a midfield player. They don’t need to specialize at a young age. They need to go through all the situations.”

Games provide valuable learning opportunities above what practices can afford. If anything, children who excel on defense should be played more often in other positions to improve areas where they may be weaker. The more time they spend working on difficult skills and tasks, the better player they will become.

And that brings us to a most contentious topic…

Put me in coach

If the stated goal of a soccer club is to develop young players abilities, yet they do not offer equal playing time, they are either uninformed…or lying. There’s no nicer way to put it.

In part two of this series, we explained how one of the most important factors in developing talent was simply the amount of time spent practicing difficult skills. Games allow children to try difficult skills in a fast-paced and competitive setting. By preferentially playing the more advanced players, opportunities for learning are limited for other children.

Could you imagine a scenario where this would be acceptable in our schools? The smarter kids get to join the teacher in the classroom for a lesson, while those with lesser academic abilities are forced to sit in the hallway and watch through the window? When parents put in equal amounts of time, energy and money, and kids show equal levels of interest and effort in playing, why is it acceptable to offer unequal training opportunities? It’s not.

How do we expect “weaker” players to improve if they are given less opportunities to do so? Because they won’t. Several research studies confirm that children who spend more time on the bench feel rejected, worthless, incompetent, and ultimately prefer to quit playing altogether. Yet, it’s not just the players on the bench that suffer.

This system also hurts the players who are perceived as “stronger.” These children, sometimes subjected to playing the entire game without a break, are more vulnerable to injury. In my own practice, a majority of overuse injuries occur in these more advanced soccer players. They also experience more psychological stress than others. By rarely, or never, having to sit on the bench, they become keenly aware that they are expected to perform at a higher level and so place more burden on their own shoulders. They begin to evaluate themselves based on whether or not the team won, rather than on their own learning and improvement. This decreases enjoyment and often leads to burnout at a young age.

As a justification for preferential minutes, some coaches will purport the benefits of “fighting for your place.” As parents, we accept this as common practice in professional sports where adults may need extra incentive to increase motivation. Yet we forget that professional athletes are paid to perform whereas children pay to learn. Kids naturally want to perform their best at all times. The only thing a “fight for your place” mentality accomplishes is that it creates less teamwork because players see other teammates as their competition. They begin to blame their mistakes on others and focus their own play on avoidance of risk rather than trying difficult skills.

As Craig Stewart and Michael C. Meyers found in their research on motivation of young soccer players, “In [this] environment, coaches not only emphasize beating the other team, but foster a rivalry among their own players, pitting them against each other for positions on a team. It develops and nurtures…’A what’s in it for me’ attitude among participants.”

More importantly, how much fun do you think it is for a ten year old to feel like every move she makes on a soccer field is being evaluated and could ultimately determine whether or not she gets to play the game she likes? As Mairs and Shaw state, “Unconditionally receiving equal playing time also helps to reduce players’ fear of making mistakes, and therefore, their self-esteem, motivation, and confidence levels become significantly elevated.”

Equal playing time can also improve the overall experience of an entire club. It significantly reduces the stress on parents to push their children to perform, yell from the sidelines, and resent coaches and other parents in the organization.

During the developmental ages, children deserve the opportunity to play all possible positions, and they should do so with an equal distribution of playing minutes. You would be hard pressed to find a single expert in child development or elite developmental soccer programs that would disagree. Then why do we accept these problems as the norm in youth soccer? Again: Because we’re all obsessed with winning. We care more about what these children can do for our adult egos in the short term rather than what we can do for their long term growth.

This is unacceptable and it needs to change.

18 Comments

  1. In recreation and local travel teams, especially at younger ages, for the most part I agree with the premise of this article about equal playing time.
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    That said, I sometimes feel equal playing time is a misnomer- why should the kid who dicks around at practice be granted the same time on the field that the kid who is intense and focused. I see it often that an engaged kid gets sat so another kid with the attention span of a video game pixel gets to run around for the 50% that the club dictates- equal playing time for all.
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    At higher club levels and once kids begin reaching 12 or so, IMO playing time should strictly be a meritocracy. Just because you are on the team doesn’t mean you play. I imagine this rubs some the wrong way, but intense competition within the team where the best players reach the field is how, again IMO, we should be doing it- total accountability at all times when practicing training and playing.
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    I know these articles speak to an important topic and I tend to argue towards the side of a ‘professional development model’ rather than this is a fun activity and I enjoy soccer but know I will never turn pro. That said, I also feel it is important that the entire direction of futbol in this country needs to turn towards a meritocracy and professional development mind-state model so naturally the arguments will skew that direction.

    • I think both the ages and levels are important here. My points are based on the research in the developmental years (5-13).
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      For younger kids, I believe coaches have a responsibility to all of their players, regardless of differences in attention span. You don’t know what gifts these kids have been given or denied in their upbringing. You have to give every kid a chance to develop–even the ones that are more “difficult” to coach.
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      At the older ages, I could accept some small differences in playing time based on effort given (perhaps as a reward for hard work, good sportsmanship, etc, – especially if the system is clearly defined to the players). However Joel, you and I both know that this is not the reasoning behind why many youth coaches split time unevenly. They give more minutes to their advanced players simply to increase their chances of winning the game.

  2. Dan C (formerly of 103) says:

    I think there are merits to both arguements. My U8’s get equal playing time. My U14’s do not. I think the most important point in this piece is playing the kids at multiple positions. At practice we rarely if ever practice actual positions. Instead we work on first touch, proper passing, shooting, give and goes, creating triangles, moving off the ball and defending using pressure/cover. Drives the non-soccer parents absolutely nuts. They think we should be running up and down an 80×40 small sided field all practice. Instead, most practices can be run in an area no bigger then the penalty box.

    • How bout it. I join a pick up game every so often with a few buddies that are entrenched in their thinking and the game sometimes will only be 4v4 instead of 8v8 or 9v9 and we will be playing the whole half side of a field.
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      I play for 10 minutes then come up with an excuse to leave- anybody can kick a ball and chase it.
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      I’d rather play bogey golf than chase a soccer ball for 2 hours.

  3. Until kids are 15 or so, games are not terribly important to their development. a focus on building their love for the game because it is fun, and basic and then advanced skill acquisition is vital. a national program with common professional standards to identify players in the 10-14 range who can move on to the higher levels of development is also important. everything under age 11 should be about the ball and having fun with it – dribbling, receiving, passing, shooting, tackling. games at that level have to be small sided and are about game experiences, not results. as a parent who still plays (and used to coach and ref), I just clap and tell my kids they did a nice job. i spend more time talking with other parents than watching the game. when i coached i sat on the bench and ran subs, equally. practice was the time to talk to the kids. and as a kid, i learned way more playing on my own or with a few friends than at practices. trying to learn new skills, tricks, etc is far easier in that environment, then repeat it a few thousand times, then try it at practice, then in a game.

  4. I continue to enjoy this series. At some point soccer people need to talk about our courts. We need pick up fields

  5. Scott asks, “Could you imagine a scenario where this would be acceptable in our schools?”
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    The answer, of course, is “yes”.
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    In the classroom, honors courses are often used to separate high-achieving students from their less-accomplished peers, usually offering such students access to a superior learning environment.
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    In the band room, the first trumpet player is often given a solo to perform, while the weaker trumpet players are assigned less challenging pieces of music.
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    In the auditorium, the lead actress in the play often has hundreds of lines to memorize, while some of her classmates in supporting roles have nothing to say at all.
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    And so on.
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    While we can debate at what age it becomes appropriate to differentiate playing time based on talent and performance, it is misguided to think that this is a soccer-only, or sports-only, issue.

    • Good point. But for soccer this means challenging players at the appropriate level. Putting them on the right team. In the classroom, the lower level kids are still learning. They’re not sitting in the hallway (bench). That’s the difference.

    • In band there is only ONE first chair trumpet, trombone, viola, violin. But, none of them are going to break their fingers, or lips, or lungs playing 7 days a week. Overuse in sports leads to injuries.
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      In honors classes there can be 20 kids, not just one. None of the kids are going to have a brain bleed, or need a shunt, or have a seizure from doing honors class work 7 days a week. Overuse in sports leads to injuries.
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      The thing I think people miss is that there is a natural statification effect with everything. The issue is kids leaving the game at numbers over 70% or more (according to multiple studies, by multiple groups) and what can we do to change that number.
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      The ‘best’ players are already being ciphoned into Academies. The statification is already in place. Conservatively the best 150 players are now in acadamies at any age grouping offered by the academies.
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      Now, forget everything about how soccer currently runs for travel in America. The question is why are kids leaving the game? The question is not, should there be teirs of instruction.
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      There will always be teirs of instruction, or stratification, in society.
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      Travel soccer in America is based upon the American Adult view of professional sports. Heck, all children’s sports in America are now about the Adult view of professional sports. It is a multi-billion dollar business, youth sports.
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      I feel your agument is apples vs oranges personally.

      • There is zero question to me that the reason kids leave the game at such high numbers is because they just don’t play enough-not enough time futzing around- everything in the game has become so organized and adult run. Because of this, at a key moment in kids lives- it is just one more thing adults are controlling when the last thing a kid wants is more adult interaction. If the free time futzing around was the cultural norm, I think there would be much more retention. Troubling thing is– less and less kids stay outside to play let alone play together let alone play futsal or street soccer- at least in this country.
        .
        by all accounts the non organized game seems to thrive abroad and in the latin countries.
        .
        this is certainly not new thinking from me- at the root of it I think we all see what part of the problem is. It is not the structure, stratified classification of talent – it is the free aspects of the game that are lost on our kids.
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        the game is not a safe haven for kids to just express themselves or to just be kids.

      • the article does not argue against the “natural stratification” of society as it applies to soccer, it argues against the current system of training youth players and seeks a better system to train/create more, better players. kids drop out of AP math/science and music too – the existence of the current system for math/science and music does not justify its application to those areas or any other area. the kids who love to do something are stymied in all areas – the goal should be to identify the kids who love to do something and nurture their abilities, not kill the love.

      • I understand your position. School is a requirement by law though. Football is a sport. Doesn’t that change things a bit?
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        Who knows. Good stuff.

      • Football should be required by law. Let’s make that happen.

    • Thank you for your comment! I will never understand why we cannot separate the children according to talent at any age, especially in select/club. There is no use for a talented kid to sit around and wait for his peers to catch up to his skill level, the same way I would never expect little Suzie to play at his speed. I see it often where you will have half a team that shows some talent and the other half who couldn’t kick a ball standing still, yet they are on the same team. It has everything to do with development. I can’t move forward with a new skill until everyone learns the bulding blocks. So do I hold the kids who get it back, or do I leave the ones who don’t get it behind? Where do we as coaches draw the line with parents who think their kids are super stars? Why is it that separating the talented gets peoples panties in a wad? Clubs need to have a better system in place to identify those with promise over those who can pay. Shame it will never be that way. As long as you still have the Toms, Dicks, & Harrys writing out the checks, it won’t matter how bad their kid is, they’ll always find a way on the team.

      • You’re missing the point. I never said that kids can’t be divided by skill. I’m talking about distribution of playing minutes within a team. These are two very different arguments. There are other ways to challenge the best players besides making them play the entire game at the cost of another child’s learning.

  6. David Nascimento says:

    Youth development is a long term process. With this goal in mind, the objective is to create a training methodology to help all the soccer players to achieve their own and ideal potential!

    Coaches don’t train their own team, they help the club to prepare players for the 1e team!

  7. kids at 8-12 should learn to play anywhere on the pitch, completely agree. But at 13, 14, 15………specialization needs to start to take shape, but not anything definite. Hell, I played OMid/fwd for my HS team and right flank back for my club team and college team! Even 15 years ago you had to be adaptable at different spots……..being a student of the game. I see nothing wrong with as a player develops into his or her teens to start honing their craft in a specific spot……..most of the world does this. Say you have a kid that is predominantly left-sided, speedy, and technically gifted at 13 or 14 and he or she plays a striker or wing. I think it would be a crime to the kid to not tell him or her: “Hey, you could be one hell of a left back in the modern game”……….you are just giving the kid an avenue to succeed. But, yes 8,9,10,11, and 12…….they should learn to play everywhere.

  8. Great topic, good insights within the replies. I would suggest there is at least one additional negative to over playing the better player, s/he will learn to pace themselves for a full game and will not always be performing at 100%. A full game even for more physically mature players than most 14 year olds have, is very difficult and overtaxing. Yes we often see even the youngest of players left on the field for the full game time (making many parents overly proud), but it will lead to players managing their effort within the game at a young age, exactly where you want them enjoying the game while playing their hardest. Obviously managing energy levels is a skill that must be acquired, but it is a skill that should be worked on in the latter stages of physical development when both capacity and personal body understanding is more developed, not at per-puberty ages. Since when is it fun to run until you can’t and then be left on the field to run some more…I think bench downtime time should be viewed as positive for young players and will help ensure the player will make that extra run later in the game or at older playing ages.

    One topic not touched on and may simply be a local problem, is an observation shared with me from a long time (large club) parent. He was not only aware of half or less of the team being truly competitive or talented and the other half not nearly so, but also believed business decisions made by the large club dictated such a mix. It helped insure half the paying parents stayed satisfied with the teams competitive level and number of wins, regardless of individual player performance. Additionally, the player mix was not actually dictated by the coaches desire for wins, rather it is dictated by the club leadership which has learned how best to satisfy the majority of the paying parents. After all, few complain about development issues or seek better coaching if they are winning close to half the games played and the players have a fair amount of field time. Carried even further, the club often moved those parents who were determined to win brackets and leagues at early ages, onto the same team and let the competition unfold as dictated by the level of play. That is to say the team may end high in the rankings because the team did have talent or it may go the season without a win, in either case the highly competitive parents would be silenced as they wanted to be on the top team.

    I’m not sure if any of that is accurate, but it leaves room for thought when looking a team makeups.

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