The following was written by Christian Lavers when he was the director of the Madison 56ers. He is now living in Milwaukee and the academy director for FC Milwaukee. He has been published numberous times on this site and is requested heavily.
A great deal of thanks is owed to Ian Barker, Director of Coaching and Player Development for the Minnesota Youth Soccer Association and former UW Men’s Assistant Soccer Coach, for his donation of time, materials, and advice in putting together this article.
Soccer is rapidly growing and becoming more popular in this country. With this growth has come an expanding player pool, more qualified coaching, and a higher level of play at all age groups. Unfortunately, with this increased popularity has also come more and more pressure for teams to win at younger and younger age groups. In fact, it is not unusual to hear people discuss with enthusiasm the win-loss record of a U8 soccer team!
Parents and coaches who are heavily emphasizing winning at young age groups are causing youth soccer players to burn out and quit the sport, and are hurting the development of all soccer players at these ages. The burnout of youth soccer players is occurring at a ridiculously high rate. Currently, 35% of players quit soccer by age 12, and 80% of those who played youth soccer are no longer playing by age 16! This burnout problem is inextricably linked to the pressure child athletes feel to win soccer games”a pressure placed on them by parents and coaches.
One reason behind this pressure, and the win-at-all-costs mentality associated with it, may be the misperception people have as to what soccer player development is. Parents and coaches of very young players increasingly identify success on the scoreboard with proper player development. However, at a youth level, the correlation between winning and the development of a soccer player is often very low.
Unlike other soccer-playing countries, in this country we ask young soccer players to compete and win soccer games before they are taught how to play soccer. The problem with this focus becomes very obvious at higher levels of competition. The effects are remarkably poor when compared with programs in other countries which are focused on technical development”such as the Dutch KNVB. The results of US ODP Regional Teams are a good example. The United States ODP Regional teams that tour in Europe are selected with the best soccer players that can be found in the region. These teams are very successful when they are athletically superior to their opposition. However, when they meet teams to whom they are equally matched athletically, again for example the Dutch, the Regional Teams struggle to get a good result. The technical skills of these teams and players is not high enough to consistently compete without an athletic advantage.
This problem starts at the young ages. Motivated by this adult-induced focus, young players go out and attempt to win the only way they know how”they kick the ball as hard as they can and run after it. Who could blame them? Without technical skills, this is the most sure way for these players to win games. Athleticism wins”obscuring the need to develop skill. The pressure to win, coupled with an inability by some coaches to teach soccer skills, inhibits these players from developing the technical skills necessary to play soccer at a higher level. Ironically, it is at these young ages when these technical skills are most easily and most quickly learned.
In the Madison area, this problem is becoming evident at U11 and U12, when the first true premier teams are picked. The selection pool is replete with athletic players who are technically years behind where they should be, and is missing a large group of players who have already been burned out and dropped out of the sport entirely”ALL OCCURRING BECAUSE OF A FOCUS ON WINNING AT TOO EARLY AN AGE! Compare the average level of American youth soccer players with the average level of Dutch youth soccer players. The disparity in technical skill level is huge. Even in comparisons within the country, the biggest difference between top level clubs, like Busch and JB Marine, and the second- tier of clubs is the technical ability of their young soccer players.
But what else happens with teams that win purely on athleticism? 1. Because of their athletic superiority these teams are usually not challenged on the field, and quickly lose motivation to improve. They come to expect to win without having to work hard. When they eventually are challenged, they do not know how to respond. When they do lose, as they will more frequently as other players physically develop, they are not prepared to handle the loss, and often get frustrated with themselves and with the sport. 2. The constant pressure to win, and the disappointment (and even anger) that parents and coaches show these players when they lose, begins to kill the love of the sport and the desire to play the sport. This is a major reason behind the large dropout rate from U8 to U12.
This problem was very appropriately summed up in a recent letter to Region II ODP coaches from Tom Turner, a member of the USSF National Staff:
Technical competence takes years to mature in many players and only a few have natural talents; and so we must work harder to develop technical proficiency, tactical understanding and a higher level of all-round sophistication in our players…AT THE EXPENSE OF POWER AND HUSTLE AND WINNING.
If USSF/ODP coaches are being charged with focusing more on technical development at the expense of winning with athleticism, certainly we at a club level should be attempting to do the same thing.
Until these issues are resolved, the development and improvement of soccer at all ages will be slowed, and widespread acceptance of the sport in this country will be hampered. But resolving these issues alone will not solve the problem until there is a more concerted effort to provide young soccer players with qualified coaches.
Without proper coaching for these young athletes, players are not forced to learn soccer skills because their athleticism is temporarily enough for them to win games”often until as late as U13 or U14. At these ages, when the slow- maturing players have physically caught up, teams that win purely on athleticism very quickly begin to lose. Only the supremely talented escape this cycle with the technical skills required to play at a higher level.
That brings up part two of the problem. Many soccer coaches feel that they are above coaching young soccer players, and so they will only coach players over a certain age. These same coaches often then complain about the quality of players they have to choose from at the older age groups. While it is true that different coaches are better with different age groups, NO COACH IS TOO GOOD TO COACH YOUTH SOCCER PLAYERS. These players are the foundation of the future.
On top of reducing the pressure to win and all of its related effects on youth soccer, soccer clubs must make youth development a priority by putting some of their most talented coaches and administrators in the youth program. We must look beyond this season to next year and the years after. Only then will players develop the skill and confidence that fosters love of the game and allows for attractive, skillful soccer. Only then will players continue to play soccer as they get older, will soccer become more popular nationally, and only then will this country begin to consistently produce world-class players.
Perhaps a more sophisticated view of youth soccer, which looks beyond statistics and quantifiable data, would also help. We tend to judge coaches solely by their win-loss record. This may be appropriate at a collegiate and professional level, where winning is the ultimate goal. At a youth level, however, coaches should not be judged and rewarded based on whether they went undefeated and won a state championship, but on their ability to develop superior players. This is not so easily quantified, but if the technical level of the players is improving, if their tactical knowledge is growing, and if the experience is positive, then the youth coach is successful. These players are being prepared to play at a higher level of competition, be it high school varsity, college, or ODP. Surely this should be the goal of youth soccer programs, even if they lose a few more games in accomplishing it.
The goals of the Madison 56ers Youth Development Program and the goals of the 56ers Competitive Program are stated below:
The Youth Development Program: Ages U6-U10
To foster love of the game, and the desire to play soccer in all players.
To provide a basic understanding and knowledge of the game.
To reach a minimum technical skill level for all players.
By U11 75% of players in the 56ers 1st XI Teams should have been developed through the 56ers Youth program.
The Young Competitive Program: Ages U11-U15
To provide a fun and competitive environment, minimizing many of the pressures that hamper enjoyment of the game. Players must have a solid technical, tactical, and mental base of skills before pressure to win games should be introduced.
To provide a solid technical and tactical base of skills for all players, preparing them to play at a competitive high school, college, or ODP level.
To develop individual players to their maximum potential.
The Senior Competitive Program: Ages U16-U19
To introduce and expose players, who have been properly prepared, to a very competitive, high level soccer environment.
To foster a competitive attitude and the psychological toughness to deal with the pressure to perform and to win at a high level of soccer.
To provide players exposure to college recruiters.
To expand and refine the tactical awareness and sophistication of all players.
You will notice that nowhere in these goals is winning placed above player development, learning, and fun. In fact, winning as an end in itself is not written anywhere in these goals. This is the basic philosophy behind the 56ers club. The entire emphasis of play in the youth development program, and even into the young competitive program should be on learning and the development of skill. If this is done properly, players will be more technically skilled, more tactically sophisticated, and better prepared for the stresses of high level competition. Winning will take care of itself. When they reach the senior competitive program, every player will have the foundation of skills necessary to properly deal with the pressure to win. Introducing this pressure too early, before players are equipped to deal with it, will only slow the development of players and diminish the enjoyment of the sport.
Unfortunately, this philosophy runs contrary to the way in which youth sports are typically run in this country. This philosophy is player-based, considering the age, needs, and desires of the players involved. In the end, players will be better, and they will have had a much better time playing. A philosophy like this should also aid in reducing dropout rates for young soccer players.
But how do we introduce this concept, and how do we ensure that it is run properly? The answer is a completely reformulated youth program, a new financial commitment to youth soccer, and a club-wide embrace of the new philosophy.