Much has been written in recent months about the state of soccer in the United States. The U.S. Men’s National Team failed to qualify for the 2018 FIFA World Cup. Youth teams have struggled to find success in international competition. The U.S. Women’s National Team remains a lonely bright light. Why? In a country with such advantages in the size of its population and its resources, how did U.S. Soccer get to this place? Why is world soccer dominated by smaller and less affluent European and Latin America countries? There are many points of view and more explanations, but one consistent observation is that youth soccer in the United States needs drastic improvement. So then where do we begin? We take a step back, steal an idea or two from international rivals and embrace a new path in youth soccer culture and coaching.
Culture: Winning vs Development
Far too many soccer clubs in America prize winning over development in youth programs. Filling a team with bigger, faster, stronger kids is a strategy that works for teams seeking results at U8, U9, U10 and U11 age brackets. Kicking long balls on a small field works great for a team with an advantage in size and athleticism. That approach brings plenty of trophies and parents (i.e., customers) to the club with such impressive results.
Of course, winning is fun. It is addictive. Winning is the best tool for recruiting new players. In many clubs, winning means more players and more players mean more money for the coach. And that can mean more pressure on younger players to win now. Play faster, get more fit, pull jerseys, bend the rules.
But soon everyone is fast. These win-now teams will struggle when they reach U12 and beyond because their players will not have learned how to play the game or take risks in their own half of the field. After U11, they will face teams who have learned to dribble, to pass and create space, to move opponents through passing rather than just moving the ball, and to make quick decisions on the ball. The win-now kids will end up chasing the ball for the entire game and, most often, exhausted, frustrated and defeated. This unexpected failure and losing brings frustration, blame and, too often, leads those players to quit a game they once loved.
The better path is to follow a development-first scenario. But this is a long term approach that requires commitment from clubs, coaches, parents and players to a different philosophy based in development rather than team standings in the early years. This works only if the club has created the right culture of long term team development and communicated clearly the club’s vision, the development ladder for players, a long term training curriculum, and a commitment to excellent coaching in its youth program. The focus must be on developing ball control, good decision making, quick thinking, passing, creativity and transition from attacking to defending and back again. And just how does a club teach children from 7 to 10 years of age to do those things? Simple. With great coaching and better coaching methods.
Coaching: Importing the Best Ideas From Around the World.
I grew up in Hungary, learning and playing soccer from age 6 through my years in university. I trained under and coached with a number of coaches in several European countries and the United States, including Thomas Doellner (youth coach in the legendary FC Bayern Munich Youth Academy) and Klaus Augenthaler (FC Bayern Munich star and member of the West German team that won the 1990 FIFA World Cup). Youth training in Europe is very different than much of what I have seen in the United States. U.S. coaches must do better.
Youth teams should focus on small sided games on smaller fields. This is a cornerstone of European training. Small sided games provide each player many more touches on the ball in each game. They also demand quick reaction time, fast decision making, quick transitions from attacking to defending, movement off the ball, and effective play under constant pressure from the other team. Small sided games on small fields are a perfect tool to combat the lack of large field space in urban environments. Futsal, which is typically played with a heavier ball indoors on a hard surface, is another small sided game that is severely underutilized in U.S. youth training. Futsal conditions only accelerate the game, requiring still quicker decisions and faster play. Wherever there is a basketball court, there is great space to provide excellent soccer training.
In Spain, ball possession is a critical component of youth development. Passing and collection of the ball are taught through Joker, 3-team and Rondo games. Joker games involve a small, odd number of players – two small teams (perhaps 3 or 4 players) and a common player (the Joker). The Joker belongs to whichever team has the ball at a given moment. The loss of the ball (and thus the loss of the Joker) requires a team to react and adjust quickly, and it requires the same of the Joker. 3-team games take this concept even further. The game begins with 3 teams of 3 or 4 players - a Red team, Blue team and Green team, for example. The Blue team partners with the team that has the ball at that moment and, just as is the case with the Joker, switches to partner with the other team if possession is lost. All three teams must shift from attacking to defending immediately upon change of possession, recovering quickly or pressing the advantage as the field circumstances dictate. Quick thinking, adjustment, sharp passing and soft touch in collecting the ball are improved through playing repetitive Joker and 3-team games. Rondo games involve a circle of players with 1 or 2 players in the center of the circle. The outside players must pass the ball to other outside players while the interior players attempt to intercept it. An intercepting player moves to the outer circle and player who lost possession moves inside. Basically, soccer keep-away in a small space. Rondo games are another great technique for teaching crisp passing and collection of the ball with the correct foot using the correct technique for receiving passes.
Hungarian, German and Spanish youth programs also place a premium on 1v1 engagements. This must be repeated over and over and over again until evasive skill moves are instinctive to the player. Young players must work on executing skill moves to both sides, utilizing both their dominant and their nondominant foot. This practice teaches the young player to play aggressively, to use effective feinting, and how to use space and pressure in executing and defeating skill moves in the 1v1 setting. Thousands of cycles are required for mastery of these skills and the development of the necessary instincts at speed to use them effectively.
The time for direct vocal coaching with young players is practice, not games. How does a young player learn to make good, quick decisions if her coach or her sideline is yelling at her to “Kick It!”, “Shoot!”, “Get Back!”, “Get Outside!”, “Get Inside!” or the particularly effective “Come On!” or “Go Faster!”? Who can think or react quickly, under pressure from opposing players, with parents or a coach yelling often conflicting directions at the same time in just the wrong moment? Let young players make decisions and mistakes, and then use those mistakes as teaching moments for better choices. A coach should use substitution breaks to give instructions or make corrections. But let players on the field, and particularly players with the ball, learn to think for themselves.
Let Me Hear You!
Players, on the other hand, should be taught to communicate with each other on the field. A player with the ball and facing away from the defense is aided by feedback from a player who can see what is coming. Calls like “Man On,” “You Have Time,” “Switch” and “Check In” help a team work together and possess the ball more effectively. But this needs to come from players on the field, not coaches and certainly not parents.
Coaches Get to Work.
Coaching young players well is demanding and requires a great deal of time and effort from coaches. The techniques described above require many, many repetitions to be effective. Assign homework. Focus practice time on multi-player techniques. If a coach is quiet during a game, how are those teaching moments not lost forever? For high level youth teams, use video. Coaches of very competitive youth teams should make arrangements to video games, analyze game footage and send annotated video clips to the team demonstrating both good and bad decisions. Coaches must be creative and keep training sessions interesting. Coaches must work to inspire players. Kind coaches with high expectations do this most effectively. A young player does not achieve what they think they can do or what the coach thinks the player can achieve. The young player achieves what they think their coach thinks they can achieve. Coaches must encourage their players, but they should not coddle them. Coaches who do not have a great passion for soccer and teaching should find something else to do with their time. Coaches have the opportunity to transform lives and shape the character of young people. This must not be wasted.
Europe and Latin America have each shown through success in international competition that their ideas and techniques are effective. Let’s take those ideas, adapt them and incorporate them into the development of young players in America. We have no time to waste.