Deconstructing youth soccer

This article suggests ways to restructure entry-level and early experience youth football (soccer) programs based on the needs of the children. It does not seek to reinvent street soccer, but it does seek to offer a balance between the ideals of street play and the realities of the over-organised youth sports world in which our children find themselves.

At its core, is the belief that adults should not be partner to the “JonBenet Ramsey Phenomenon” of dressing children up to participate in miniature versions of professional sport.

Although it was written with the US soccer scene in mind, it is relevant to the increasingly competitive youth football culture in the UK.

A big thank you to the Ohio Youth Soccer Association North for their permission to reproduce this article.

Deconstructing Youth Soccer: creating the ideals of street play in an organised soccer world

by Tom Turner

Children and Play

Fascinating rules emerge in the streets and parks and sandlots and alleyways when children are left to their own devises in sport. In Shane Murphy’s excellent and insightful book, The Cheers and the Tears: A healthy alternative to the dark side of youth sport today, four basic principles were reported in describing the ways children govern their own organizations during free play. These four principles, Action, Involvement, Excitement and Friendships, are briefly described below.

Action. Games must be motivating, and children always seem to find ways to structure play into “competition” when they are left alone. Competition is fun, so long as the rules make sense! Mostly a set score determines the winner, sometimes a mealtime. Children never line up to practice a drill when play is an option; hence, “scrimmage” time is taken for granted. Older children will eagerly wait on the sidelines until a game ends for the right to play the winner and attempt to hold the field against the next challengers. Children often know intuitively what game numbers create the best balance for competition, and they will create multiple teams when space limits the option to play multiple or larger-sided games.

Personal involvement. The following question has probably been offered to thousands of children over the years: “Would you rather play on a team that may not win very often, or sit on the bench for a team that wins all the time?” The response is always the same. Children would rather play and lose than sit and win. One of the compelling features of youth sport, from the youth’s perspective, is participation. For athletes of every age, there is very little enjoyment in watching someone else play, and very little learning takes place without the opportunity to participate directly; most commonly, everyone plays! Children will often modify their rules to allow the weaker players second chances at success; more importantly, this practice also served to reduce the risk of embarrassing their weaker peers.

Excitement. Blowouts are no fun for children and characteristic of youth orchestrated play is the need for excitement and challenge. Ironically, while being the last player picked from a group can often be embarrassing, the practical outcome of this age-old tradition is relatively balanced competition. No youth sport contest begins with the two best players starting out on the same team. If the sides turn out to be uneven, either the game is concluded and new sides picked, or players trade places and new hope is given to the trailing side. Young players often modify their rules to accommodate imbalance or inequity and, particularly in lopsided contests, “next goal wins” serves to produce the required adrenaline rush in pursuit of last-minute glory.

Friendships. Young children enjoy being with their friends. They enjoy competing against them and competing with them. They also enjoy meeting new friends through sport. Social order is often created through sport, with the bigger or older kids appointing themselves as captains, picking the teams, settling the arguments and setting the rules. The first real sports heroes many of us remember were often the older, bigger or most advanced players involved in our daily games.

The Demise of the Street Soccer Culture and the Rise of Small-Sided Games

The small-sided games movement evolved worldwide in response to the steady demise of street soccer. As a part of youth culture, street soccer remains strong in only Latin America, Africa, and in some parts of the Middle and Far East.

In street soccer cultures, children as young as five can be found playing with their peers and older “friends” in ever-varying configurations of games. Two or three players are enough to start the days’ play and, on occasion, the numbers may swell to resemble small mob scenes. Goals are made from whatever is available and play is always between two goals. The ball may be nothing more than a bundle of rags, there are no scrimmage vests, no referees and no coaches. Rule disputes are settled by the players and the outcome of games is often decided by family meal times, evening curfews, the availability of light, or some agreed upon number, such as “ten halftime-twenty wins.”

The severity of the bug bites in the summer was, as I remember, reason to keep moving, not reason to quit!

During school days, arriving early meant more opportunities to play in smaller-sided games before the sleepyheads wandered in, and the lunch hour game was interrupted only long enough to gobble down food before resuming play.