Thursday, February 21, 2013

Player Development in Youth Soccer

I've been reading a lot lately about player development of our youth players across the country (Canada). Much of what has be written has keyed on Ontario because that is where those sharing their opinions are located; however, it is likely as big a deal or more in smaller places and provinces like Nova Scotia where I am. There has been a lot of opinions shared about Long Term Player Development (LTPD) plan.

The LTPD among many other things purports to eliminate keeping scores and standings for players under the  age of 12. Focusing on fostering a love of the game at the earliest of ages and teaching basic skills as opposed to concentrating on results.

I don't have the pedigree that many of those discussing the issue have; but, I have played the game since I was 8. I played in our "A" or Tier I level for years as a youth and played for a handful of years in our Senior league. Not being the most skilled or best athlete, I know the nervousness of a kid who in the face of controlling a ball and making a sound decision or lumping it as far away from me as possible under duress, and invariably choosing the latter option - generally the panic-option. Additionally, I began coaching kids when I was 18 and have continued to do so off and on over the past 20 ish years including both genders and all ages from U6 to Senior. Currently, helping to coach my 8 y/o nephews team.

All the above is to at least show where my opinion is derived and the experiences I've had to help form those.

Number 1: kids keep score, they always know the score or close to the score and they know who scored the goals. It will always be this way. Standings, they don't seem as aware of.

Number 2: if the goal is to win, then skills DO suffer. If I'm trying to win at U8 or 10 or even 12, I take the biggest and most athletic. We constantly hammer the ball towards the other teams goal and keep them penned in. To what gain? Sure, you finished high up in the standings, but what was learned? Aside from hammering a ball, what skills were gained?

The goal should be to improve. To build skills - control, dribbling, passing, shooting, spatial awareness - and to enjoy the sport. What is the typical favorite part of practice? Scrimmage in our gym or field, is for certain. So, they still love to play a game even though we don't keep score.

A few things I've noticed in coaching this group of U8's this winter and I should mention this is an "Academy" team, which gives those kids who have been identified by the club an opportunity for additional soccer in the winter or those kids who want to get some more soccer in.

  1. There is a player who when the sessions started in October showed to be a capable player. Not bad to begin with and held his own in scrimmages and games (we don't keep scores or standings, but play the other club's U8 academy teams). This player, when we would introduce a skill would typical try to do it. Would often do the skill slowly (which to me is great), where many others would be tearing around trying the skill at 100 km/hour and not actually succeeding or keeping the ball close to them. Just after the break of the holidays, this player began to click. He was now doing the skills with some speed and really taking over at times in the games. I attribute it to his taking his time to understand the skill and to working on successes at a slower pace prior to going at speed.
  2. Another player, during a practice, when encouraged to use his left foot for a shot, replied that his right was better. The conversation that was had with him was that the more he used both feet now the stronger both will be as he progresses. He still doesn't quite default to using the foot best set-up for the moment; but, I think the real point is that kids will always try to "win" whether that is using their strong foot over their weak in a scrimmage or trying to win a game. For the most part, I don't think we have to concentrate on teaching them how to win. I believe much of that is innate, but certainly shouldn't be the focus early on.
  3. This observation comes from years ago, but is relevant for this discussion. The coach that I'm helping with the U8's coached a group of boys from U12 to U15, I believe years ago with another friend of mine. They were many times being beaten at the youngest ages U12-U13. Not because they were not good players, but because they were working on skills that as they matured and the athleticism and size evened out would put them well above their competition. By, I believe, their 3rd year with this group the tables had turned and they were thrashing the opposition BECAUSE they were better players who learned the skills but also the game and didn't rely on Size to win at the early ages.
I end this post by saying that those who use the national team's result against Honduras as the reason why the LTPD plan won't work, this likely had little to do with LTPD as most of these players would not have been impacted by this plan. Frankly, the players laid an egg during that game. The result is an outlier to the other results in that round.