Youth Soccer

Youth Soccer: We’re Doing it Wrong, the conclusion

Scott Pugh ends 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 were 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 onetwothreefour, five, six, and seven of the series.

Final Thoughts

It has been a pleasure working on this series. I hope that the ideas I’ve shared have been helpful in realizing that we can still do a better job with youth soccer. While some readers have had some valid objections, please remember that this series is focused on the developmental ages (pre-adolescence). They were not just my opinions, but well-researched, evidenced-based conclusions supported by volumes of elite soccer coaches and developmental experts. Whether this series reaffirmed or challenged your beliefs, these ideas are vital for coaches and parents to consider:

  • Talent is not static. It is dynamic. Time on the ball, the freedom to make mistakes, and having fun are crucial for children to develop.
  • When clubs are focused on winning first, the development and enjoyment of the children suffers.
  • Players and coaches need to let children make decisions on their own during games to become more creative and to develop confidence.
  • Young players should receive equal playing time and rotate through all playing positions.
  • Tryouts should be used to match children with their best learning environment, rather than to maximize a club’s chance of winning games.
  • Friendly matches and soccer festivals should replace traditional tournaments that are laden with hazards for young players.
  • A child’s current ability compared to his or her peers will change. The relative age effect, experience and variable rates of physical and psychological development cause wide variation in players abilities at young ages that often bear no predictive value for future success. Therefore, all children who are interested and committed should be given opportunities to develop.

Nothing in this series has been novel information. It is readily available, and indeed prevalent, in the coaching world. The fact that it hasn’t translated yet to the average parent in our local clubs is what concerns me. For that to occur, I believe parents (and some coaches) need to be educated about how many of the practices we consider the norm in traditional youth soccer can be detrimental to our youngsters’ development.

Here’s what we can do

Consider picking up a book like Coaching Outside the Box by Mairs and Shaw, or Changing the Game by John O’Sullivan. If you’ve disagreed with some of what I’ve written about here, I guarantee these books will do a better job of convincing you. Share them with others. If you see things in youth soccer like the scene I witnessed in the first part of this series, do something about it. Talk to the parents or the club leadership, and have a discussion of what can be improved.

Parents

Familiarize yourselves and your fellow parents with some of the pitfalls we’ve discussed in this series. Support clubs who recognize these pitfalls in their efforts to educate and install progressive, developmental ideas for their clubs. Realize that coaches don’t have to be sideline generals or winning games to be successful. Ensure you keep your emotions in check during games, and beware of the reverse-dependency trap. Keep tabs on whether your children are actually enjoying their experience.

Remember that just because a club wins a lot of games or tournaments, it doesn’t mean this is the best environment for your young player to improve their abilities or enjoyment of soccer.

Ask questions of club directors and coaches such as:

  • What percentage of children who start playing at age 7 continue past 13? High school? College and beyond?
  • Do you recruit players from out of town? If so, why?
  • How do you ensure that player development is given greater importance than winning games?
  • How do you decide what leagues or tournaments in which to participate?
  • Do players get equal playing time? Do they specialize into positions?
Coaches and Clubs

Educate parents and players. Parents need to understand the difference between a focus on development and a focus on winning. Players need to understand that their current abilities do not determine their future success in the sport. They are works in progress, and the children who work the hardest and keep a positive attitude will develop the most.

When coaching, be self-critical. Think about the choices you make. Think about how much you direct players during games. By barking out orders, could you be stifling their creativity and limiting your opportunities to evaluate their decision-making abilities? Are you inadvertently embarrassing players in front of their peers? Are you able to achieve an age-appropriate balance between pushing your players further and keeping their experience enjoyable? The more self-reflection you do, the better coach you will become.

Evaluate your policies on equal playing time, position rotation, league/tournament selection. What is the driving force behind these decisions. If the answer is not “It’s the best thing for the children’s development,” consider making changes. Be bold. Winning games and tournaments is not the only way for a club to be financially successful. You will find that there are many parents out there who actually will support a developmental model…they often just don’t know it yet. The more parents understand development, they more they will flock to clubs that focus on it. The kids will enjoy their experience more and consequently will remain at clubs in larger numbers.

Thank you

I want to sincerely thank everyone that has participated in this discussion over the last couple months. I have learned a lot about youth soccer in the process of writing this series. It has made me even more appreciative of the supportive, developmentally-focused coaches and programs my children have been fortunate enough to find. But it has also made me even more passionate to improve the soccer experience for as many children as possible.

Perhaps the title for this series wasn’t fair. We’re not doing it all wrong. There’s a lot we’re doing right. In fact, I’m sure I could fill another series with all of the positive developments that have occurred in youth soccer. I love soccer and I’m glad my children have shown an interest. In my opinion, soccer is one of the best activities in which children can participate.

But if you love this sport, and you love these kids, you know that we can always improve.

16 Comments

  1. Amen! Thanks for this series and all of your hard work.

  2. Thorough. Comprehensive. Well done. Thank you.

  3. Thanks Scott, for all the research and work you put in. You started a conversation on this forum that needs to keep going…………

  4. pragmatist says:

    Thank you, Scott. For those of us that love this game, this has been a fantastic exercise to examine that state of the game in this country.
    I’m looking forward to going back through now and reading all 6 parts as group.

    You did a great job, and all of us here greatly appreciate it!

  5. Idea for the next column: ages 17-20…….the “no-mans land” of footy!

  6. Thanks, Scott, for spending the time and for finishing the Series, as you did: not everything is Wrong.

  7. The US Soccer Curriculum of 2011 reiterates basically all of the soccer specific points of failure in this series of articles.

    There!
    http://www.ossca.org/documents/ossca/coachingeducation/US_Soccer_Guide_to_Coaching.pdf

    I don’t think you need to buy anything. If you do then you will be blue in the face to argue the validity of the resource. I suggest to simply ingest the PDF at the above link and quote the source as “US Soccer”.

    I regularly send the link to the board members, coaches and anyone else involved in our youth club. My feeling is that as each day goes by my arguments, based upon the points emphasized in The US Soccer Curriculum, get stronger as more competitors chose to attend to it improving and we do not because we are stuck in hoof ball 1987.

    I also say whenever I can that when the Curriculum changes then we should change too. Following it in this manner, guarantees to avoid the principalities of certain dominant resource sucking teams within one club who win because they have certain coaches who come and go inevitably. It also avoids the overall cult of personality that a local club can become based upon the opinion of one or two power wielders; i.e. “The need for speed” and other dumb shit like that. Again, these people come and go as their children age out.

    This publication, though not perfect- I think it should 1) differentiate boys and girls progression better and 2)emphasize physical play more- is more than enough to get us all on the same page and become better players and consumers of the game.

    • I know this response is off topic…. all good my friend- but where is the methodology in the curriculum? I’ve read through this text mulitple times and it is so rundimentary to be nearly laughable.
      .
      I would love to read La Roja’s curriculum by comparison. The greats have a way, a– Zen and the Art of Building Football. Method.
      .
      We need method. Method is the plan in the vision, philosophy, plan triumverate. Consistent, agreeable, implementable buy-in method is one big thing we are missing which is why under every stone- the game looks different. That and futsal courts everywhere.

      • I believe there is a method. It is this. If a coach does not follow the age development pattern of the Curriculum, for example ball handling skills, then he or she is out. I guess your asking for specific drills or maybe new rules like small-sided games until a certain age. I think that is too much specificity to be practical. As-is the Curriculum is good enough sheet music for the choir to sing together in harmony, the choir being your youth club… and it’s specific enough to call out those that want to recruit and/or play jungle ball to win today sacrificing development tomorrow. No, it’s not Ajax method, but it is a good enough basis for the masses of US youth soccer players to seamlessly move on to higher level training.

        http://espn.go.com/sports/soccer/news/_/id/6609795/soccer-ajax-method-catch-us

      • I follow you, but that specificity is precisely what is missing. So we have a US Curriculum and then we have a US Methodology. An exact science of coaching across all developmental age- specificity to the blade of grass and yes SSG as the fulcrum.
        .
        Coaching is part art and part science. We need the science as I am sure there are plenty of artists to compliment it within these borders.

  8. Scott, thank you for taking the time to prepare this series and for sharing it with us. I enjoyed reading your articles and participating in some of the online conversations that followed each piece. Hopefully, your series will be widely read and discussed in the broader youth soccer community.

  9. The Black Hand says:

    Good show, Spugger!! You have wrapped up the series, superbly. Thank you!

  10. Great read Scott. I have had contact with a few good coaches…now attend Union games with them. My son played and learned the game from these folks…and I also learned more about the modern game and style. This very series, and all it contains,is one of the reasons I recommend this site to people all the time. Thanks to you and all the commenters for all the information.

  11. Well done on the series Scott, well done.

  12. Scott,

    Your articles were well thought out and well written. Youth soccer in the USA is very frustrating to me. IMO, most clubs are not run well, most US coaches are incomplete, and 98% of the soccer parents just don’t understand soccer well enough to recognize what they need to refuse, what they need to reinforce, and what aspects of club soccer they need to force a change.

    One of the biggest issues is simply the economics. It costs some $5-10 a month to participate in Europe, some $60-$100 a year or so. But, in the USA the cost of participation is between $2000 and $5000 a year and more.

    The clubs want to maintain this high cost. They have a vested interest in it, while many of those in the lower economic classes can’t afford club soccer. Further, winning is the measuring tape by which the coaches, players, and most parents use to evaluate a team or club. So, there is much emphasis on assembling winning teams through tryouts every year to “weed and feed” the A teams, and development takes a second seat on so many teams.

    All the best!

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