When US Soccer introduced their new Player Development Initiatives last year it was with the clear intent of improving the quality of play across youth soccer. They clearly stated their objectives which I am listing again below:
- to develop improved skills on the ball
- to improve comfort and confidence
- to develop intelligence with and without the ball
- to promote faster decisions and better awareness
- to develop partnerships within the team (connecting with players in other positions)
In the same announcement US Soccer talked about the need to change the mindset of youth sports, about "the long-term development of players being the top priority", how "there is too much emphasis on the result of the game" and that there are "no shortcuts" and the need to "have patience" to allow players to improve their skills.
I think it is safe to say that all rational parents of a youth soccer player would wholeheartedly agree with everything mentioned above as they read this blog in isolation. However, it can be quite a different story on a Saturday afternoon when their child's team is losing and it feels like they give up a goal or a goalscoring opportunity every time the team's goalie starts play with a short pass out to a central defender. The other team rushes in, the ball is coughed up, and bang!, another goal against. Why oh why do we insist on this "building out of the back" business? Why not just kick the ball down the pitch and away from our goal, so that, even if possession is lost, it is at least away from danger?
The simple answer is that if we are to stay true to following the objectives listed above then we MUST build through the thirds of the pitch (defensive, middle, and attacking). Simply "booting" the ball forward in the direction of the opponent's goal does not fit in with trying to develop the young player. The "kick ball" method that seems so effective at the younger age age groups is rendered completely inadequate by teams and players who are trained with the above objectives as a core part of their team's philosophy and curriculum. But to reach that point, there will be harsh lessons and lots of mistakes to be made. That is where (for me) the key phrase of the whole US Soccer document on their new Player Development Initiatives comes into play, that "players must be put into the best possible environment to succeed". Not "to win", but to succeed in improving their skills, comfort, and confidence on the ball, their game intelligence and awareness, and their ability to connect with their teammates.
When we watch young children play we need to remember that we are watching them learn. Many experiences are completely new to them. Mistakes are commonplace; even the most dominant teams at the younger ages make a ton of them, (they are often just better at capitalising on the other team's mistakes). And that is okay. It can be frustrating, but it is okay. Coaches tend to know that, and parents need to try to better understand that. Coaches are looking for signs of improvement, signs that the above objectives are starting to take root. Recognizing these signs is infinitely more important than any single result or league standing. The environment we create is the single most important thing. If players are afraid to fail then no learning can take place. We all want to win, and no one I know likes to lose. But sport is sport. The game itself must provide the competition and the pressure, not the coach or the parents.
Thank you for reading,