The most important soccer skills to teach young players

Soccer players need a lot of different skills, and it does not matter for most of these skills whether you teach Skill A or Skill B first. However, there are some skills that are absolute “must-haves” for any player- and are so important that you probably will want to teach them first.

These are basic ball-holding skills (receiving and shielding); basic ball-stealing skills (defence); and basic take-on skills (attacking). Most kids naturally seem to have a few basic defensive skills, even if they were never formally taught. The other two areas require instruction to accomplish with even minimal competency, so there is a good argument to start first with ball-holding skills; move next to take-on skills; and then to get to ball-stealing skills.

Why ball-holding before take-on? Simple. Once you get possession, the other side is going to try to take the ball back. If you can hang onto the ball under pressure, you’ll have time to make better decisions (including finding an open teammate to pass the ball to). Also, if you are confident that you can hold the ball, you are much less likely to blindly try to simply whack it away and let someone else worry about it (a technique commonly known as “passing the responsibility rather than the ball” or the “hot-potato phenomenon”). What are ball-holding skills? Most folks refer to them as receiving and shielding skills. The first step (receiving) is to bring the ball under control quickly. Then, you use your body/legs to get between the opponent and the ball to protect (shield) the ball. It includes really basic stuff like simply stepping over the ball when somebody is coming in, as well as somewhat harder stuff (but still easy) like rolling/pulling the ball back behind you or to your side. The rolling/pulling of the ball requires some work, as you need to learn to use both feet – and to switch feet. However, one of the key ingredients is to learn to bend the knees; get the arms out; and use your weight to push back into the opponent. As kids get more advanced, they can learn how to spring off of an opponent (or roll off of him by using a circle turn). However, at the very beginning stages, they are fine if they can simply get their bottoms down; get those knees bent; push hard back into the opponent; and get enough weight on their support leg to be able to free their far foot and use it to roll the ball around. Along with these ball-holding skills, you will want to introduce some basic receiving skills, so that they can bring the ball under control quickly (which is essential if they are going to have any hope of shielding it).

How to do this? Start with two equal-sized players with a single ball in a grid about 3-yards square and have them work on holding the ball by using simple rolls, pullbacks and other touches to shield the ball. If you teach your players ANYTHING, teach them the skills to keep possession. Once they realize that they have the skills to keep an opponent from stealing the ball, they will gain the confidence to lift their heads up and find another player to pass off to. Before they gain this confidence, you can expect terrible passing simply because they will get flustered at the first hint of pressure (and might even “feel” panicked at pressure which is 10-20 yards away). Until your players can hold a ball 1v1 in a grid about 10 feet by 10 feet for a count of around 7-8, they are not going to have enough confidence to do very well on the field.

After learning some basic shielding/receiving skills, the next thing to learn is some basic dribbling skills. Different coaches have different philosophies on how to teach dribbling. Many coaches spend a lot of time trying to teach young players a lot of fancy moves which were made famous by noted international stars (who, incidentally, only perfected these fancy moves after years and years of hard work on the basics). This approach works for some kids who are naturally graceful and quick. However, it can have the unfortunate result of convincing an awful lot of kids that “I can’t dribble” when they simply are still growing; are a bit clumsy; and cannot get their big feet and/or unwieldy bodies to do all of the ballerina stuff.

What these coaches don’t realize is that a player only needs to know about 3 basic moves to be able to dribble very successfully–and that virtually all top-notch players use these same 3 moves about 90% of the time when they are dribbling the ball. ANYBODY CAN LEARN THESE 3 MOVES (and this includes the coach)!

The moves are the check (a/k/a “magic hop” in some Vogelsinger videos); the simple cut/explosion using the outside of the dribble foot; and the chop (cut with the inside of the foot). If they can master these three moves, and learn the standard, straight-ahead dribbling technique (i.e. knee over the ball; front of dribble foot pulls the ball along so it stays on/near the foot at all times), they can learn to beat a reasonable number of defenders especially if those defenders are coming in at speed.

The key to take-on skills is getting the head up to watch the defender which is dependent on having enough ball-control that you know where the ball is and what it is going to do without needing to look. Then, as soon as the defender tries to stab at the ball, you can take advantage of his “dead leg” (weight mainly on one leg) by attacking the outside of the dead leg and going around him. Piece of cake!!

Of course, once your players become convinced that they can dribble, they probably will want to work on “cool moves”. This is a great warm-up. In fact, it can be great homework (Coach at end of practice: “Johnny needs to learn a new move and teach it to us at next practice; anyone who uses it in the scrimmage gets a lollipop”). But don’t put the cart before the horse. Convince them that they can dribble and the fancy moves will take care of themselves.

The next thing to learn is basic defence including simple delay as well as ball-stealing. The first thing to teach is simple delaying tactics by use of good footwork to get in the attacker’s way. Time is the defender’s friend, and speed is the attacker’s friend, so you want to delay and delay and delay to allow your teammates to come and help. Once you’re “numbers up”, it’s easier to steal the ball! The second skill is the standing tackle followed by the shoulder charge.

Of course, after you’ve taught these very basic skills, you’ll need to work on passing technique and kicking technique since most kids won’t be able to pass accurately or do a laces kick or a chip without instruction (although most will toe-kick just fine). Whatever you do, please don’t teach your kids that the “proper” way to score is to break the net with a hard shot. Many kids get the impression that they cannot play forward unless they have a very hard shot. This is garbage. Most goals in games will be scored by passes, not by blistering shots on goal (pull out your WC tapes and watch – this is universally true for most goals, except for set plays). So, get them used to scoring by simply passing the ball into the net and their future coaches will thank you. Nothing wrong with scoring by a kick, mind you. Just don’t get them into the mindset that their spectacular dribbling run through 6 defenders needs to end with a bullet shot as they’ll inevitably put the ball out too far in front of them to get the shot off and the keeper will make a meal of it. On the other hand, they most likely would have scored if they had simply kept the head up; watched the keeper; and pushed it past him.

Depending on your age group, the next stage is often to introduce wall passes but these take lots of ball control/receiving/passing skills which often are not present at younger ages or with newer players. You’ll also want to introduce the basic cutback or drop at some stage, as well as the square pass. The cutback or drop (where the on-ball player takes the ball to the goal line and cuts it back to the penalty mark) are common support options. These are all basic 2v1 options for support – and I haven’t even added the overlap!

There is not much point in even adding much in the 3v1 or 3v2 attacking category until your kids have mastered the basic jobs of the on-ball player and the player who is closest to him (the 2nd attacker, in coach-speak). Once the kids have figured out how to keep the ball; take somebody on; and provide simple 2v1 support; add in the concepts of basic triangles for support and focus on the job of the off-ball players to promptly move so that the on-ball player always has 2 safe, short passing options. Along with improving first-touch and some more basic take-on, finishing and defending skills, this should be quite enough to occupy your team (and you) through the next World Cup.

Along the way, expect them to make mistakes in deciding what was the “best” support option. Expect them to go to sleep from time to time, and not move into a good support position. Expect their first-touch to fail them. But, if you work them in these basics and push them to learn these simple rules, they are likely to be among the best players on the field in a few years.

The mental development of 6-12 year olds in youth soccer

Mental Development for the 6 year olds and under

The key issue for children under six is positive self-esteem. Children will play the game longer, try harder and overcome obstacles if the environment is conducive to building self esteem.

The concept of “self” is learned, not by winning games, but by facing progressively difficult challenges. Earning success promotes higher levels of self-awareness, stronger self-image and self-confidence. The child up to the age of 6 is focused primary upon developing the self. At this stage all experiences should allow the child to fully engage the physical domain within the child. It would be destructive to make tactical demands on a six year old when they don’t have the cognitive ability to comprehend the concept.

“The make believe” ability of the child’s mind is dominant at this stage. Most interactions of the make believe world can be unitized successfully in the very small sided game. Every touch can be a resounding success. Youngsters have very short attention spans and can’t stand hearing verbal descriptions of observations from a coach.

Too much verbiage and the moment is lost. Players like to move and require constant opportunity to be successful. The under six player is developing a central nervous system that requires general movement with little refined skill. It’s OK if a six year old cannot bend a ball at 40 yards, it’s not in their abilities to master such a demand. If we try to teach this demand we waste time and destroy the child’s motivation. The world of a six year old revolves around the imaginary victories they create in their realities. This is a normal phase and should be encouraged with corrections and criticisms held to a minimum.

Given the correct environment the children will find a way to play. When levels of demand are to abstract in the full 11 v 11 game (tactics) or the physical demands to challenging the result is anger, helplessness and ultimately dropout.

Mental Development for the 7-12 year olds

The next phase in development is the cognitive period of operational thought. At this stage, age 7-12 the child is moving away from self-centeredness and becomes aware of others in the world. The larger sided games that require more complex variations and tactics can start to be introduced.

We have to be aware that there is a very small progression from the previous stage and that a sudden transition to a formal full game with 11 v 11 tactics will destroy confidence if introduced at this stage. Therefore, the progression should move gradually to a larger sided game. The simple progression from a 6 v 6 to a 7 v 7 game is warranted here.

A longer attention span and the ability to understand co-operation will contribute to playing small side tactics. The ability to understand rule formation is beginning in this stage and therefore the coach can begin to described simple logic.

Again, a word of caution that a full sided game is beyond the comprehension of a nine year old. I often hear of parents that indicate that a child at age nine is already competently playing full sided games with older children.

Playing and understanding the game are different ideas.

It is necessary to both understand and be successful to achieve higher levels of enjoyment. One of the quickest ways to lose a child joy is to make the demands of the game to difficult and to lose contact with their friends. At this stage the persons self-concept is forming along the lines of how they compare to other people.

While this comparison is inevitable within the context of society we must emphasize the needs of the child. Soccer by its nature can indicate a winner and loser very quickly and can initiate gross feelings of guilt and inferiority if the a constant focus on winning is stressed rather than development.

The McDonaldization of American soccer

Extract: …let the game do the teaching. The kids are here to PLAY and not to WORK. They worked enough in school, where they’ve been helped enough to solve problems that they might only be mildly interested in. Why subject them to more adult supervised instruction towards a goal that they probably don’t share or agree with? “Do I really have to throw the ball in the air and trap it with my thigh? If I do that in a game, wouldn’t it be a hand ball?”

 “Generally speaking, there are only a few natural (top) talents! Youth trainers work more often with players of limited talent who are able to learn to become good players in a specific position. These players will from here on be called the ‘work talent’!
Rinus Michels, TeamBuilding, p. 182.

“If you get the strategy right, you can get the tactics wrong, and eventually you’ll get the tactics right. If you get the strategy wrong and the tactics right at the start, you can refine the tactics forever, but you still lose the war.” Col. Robert Killebrew

The two comments above may appear unrelated to youth soccer but they are not. The methods that we choose to train the children play a role in the finished product that they become. (Product, how long they stay in the game and their level of proficiency.) Those methods are the tactical means to reach a strategic objective. When you’re faced with two distinct groups, natural talents and work talents you’ll need a flexible tactical approach. A one-size fits all mentality will be sure to leave one group or the other shortchanged.  Developing natural talents and work talents are two different strategic objectives.

First, we have a hard time accepting that the vast majority of children are simply work talent. Natural talents are very rare. Making that mistake sets you up for the next one, choosing the wrong strategy. It’s the belief that the majority of players can get to the top and play any position. That real talent can be taught, that skill can be mandated, that hard work alone is all that’s required for success. This has consequences for how the team trains which we’ll look at next.

The term McDonaldization was coined by University of Maryland Sociology Professor George Ritzer as a means to reinvigorate the Weberian critique of the nature of modern society through the present-day fast-food industry, which is also seen as a model for an increasing number of sectors of American society.  First written in 1993, The McDonaldization of Society looks at ‘the processes by which the principles of the fast-food restaurant are coming to dominate more and more sectors of American society as well as the rest of the world’ (Ritzer, 2000: 1).  The term he uses is an amplification and an extension of Weber’s theory of rationalization.  Ritzer writes: ‘McDonaldization affects not only the restaurant business, but also education, work, health care, travel, leisure, dieting, politics, the family, and virtually every other aspect of society.  McDonaldization has shown every sign of being an inexorable process, sweeping through seemingly impervious institutions and regions of the world’ (Ritzer, 2000: 10).  As with Weber’s system of formal rationalization, the McDonaldization process is characterized by efficient, calculable, predictable, and increasingly controllable means of human beings…

There is no question that greater efficiency brings many advantages, but it is quite important to remember that the methods used to increase efficiency are typically organized and operated by organizations to further their own interests and they are not always the same of the customers. (The emphasis is on the coach’s problems and not on the player’s problem). Note though, the more we encounter efficiency, the more of it we crave, and as a result, we often end up clamoring for that which may not be in our best interests…

The stress on calculability brings with it many advantages, such as the ability to obtain large numbers and sizes of things at a relatively low cost.  On the other hand though, the fact that in a society that emphasizes quantity, goods and services tend to be increasingly mediocre, which can be a negative in the long term…(Compare a burger from 5 Guys and McDonalds. We accept poorer quality in the name of efficiency.)

As a result, the world in which we live has become increasingly predictable.  And for the most part, most of the population comes to expect, and even to a certain degree, demand predictability.  However, many have found that a predictable world can easily become a boring world, and something sterile… (Do 9-14 year olds want to be bored?)

Weber would argue that contemporary recreational activities have become highly rationalized, even though recreation can be thought of as a way to escape the rationalization of daily routines.  George Ritzer points out that once sought after escape routes have themselves become highly rationalized, embodying the same principles of a bureaucratic system.  He writes:

‘Among the many examples of the rationalization of recreation are ClubMed, (Curves, Strip Mall Karate shops) chains of campgrounds, and package tours.  Take, for example, a thirty-day tour of Europe.  Buses hurtle through only the major cities in Europe, allowing tourists to glimpse the maximum number of sites in the time allowed.  At particularly interesting or important sights, the buses may slow down or even stop to permit some picture taking.  At the most important locales, a brief stopover is planned so visitors can hurry through the site, take a few pictures, buy a souvenir, then hop back on the bus to head to the next attraction’ (Ritzer, 2000: 25-6).

With the rationalization of even their recreational activities, people do live to a large extent in an iron cage of rationalization.

‘Efficient systems have no room for anything smacking of enchantment and systematically seek to root it out of all aspects of their operation.  Anything that is magical, mysterious, fantastic, dreamy, and so on is apt to be inefficient.  Enchanted systems typically involve highly convoluted means to whatever end is involved.  Furthermore, enchanted worlds (Passionate hobbies) may well exist without any obvious goals at all.  Efficient systems, also by definition, do not permit such meanderings, and designers and implementers will do whatever is necessary to eliminate them…With regard to calculability, enchantment has far more to do with quality than quantity.  Magic, fantasies, dreams, and the like relate more to the inherent nature of an experience and the qualitative aspects of that experience, than, for example, to the number of such experiences one has.  (In the end, quality remains while quantity fades.) An emphasis on producing and participating in a large number of experiences tends to diminish the magical quality of each of them. Put another way, it is difficult to imagine the mass production of magic, fantasy, and dreams.  The mass production of such things is virtually guaranteed to undermine their enchanted qualities…No characteristic of rationalization is more inimical to enchantment than predictability.  Magical, fantastic, or dream-like experiences are almost by definition unpredictable. As a general rule, fantasy, magic, and dreams cannot be subjected to external controls; indeed, autonomy (Player centered and owned) is much of what gives them their enchanted quality.  Fantastic experiences can go anywhere; anything can happen.  Such unpredictability clearly is not possible in a tightly controlled environment (Coach dominated).  It is possible that tight and total control can be a fantasy, but for many it would more a nightmare than a dream. (Top players, like George Best and Cruyff chaff under a coach’s control. In fact, both of them saw themselves as entertainers first and sportsmen second. They valued play over work.) Such cold, mechanical systems are usually the antithesis of the dream worlds associated with enchantment’ (Ritzer, 1999: 96-9).

Without doubt we are a nation on the move. Time has been compressed through technology and the idea of multi-tasking. We have also given up our freedom to determine our own future by relying on experts to tell us how we should do things as opposed to how we can do things.

When these factors come into play in youth soccer adults become impatient with the rate of growth that children demonstrate. Parents want more and sooner. This means a greater reliance on experts and even more efficient means to reach some smaller end. We encourage Foot skills sessions to learn an endless number of tricks, Velocity Sports to improve an ever growing number of physical needs, i.e. speed, quickness, jumping, turning, stopping, starting, flying starts and on ad infinitum.

What cannot be escaped is the opportunity cost. You simply can’t get something for nothing. What you get with an overemphasis on details divorced from ‘soccer’ is the Home Depot version of the sport. Players who have been trained how to use an incredible number of tools but, on the field can’t fix a simple problem. They make knowledgeable sales people but lousy carpenters, plumbers and electricians, soccer’s attackers, defenders and midfielders.

Look at the Coaching Points document. It shows a well thought out program for a single coaching session. It is very organized and provides salient coaching points for each activity. It clearly moves the players through a predictable pattern, on a predictable schedule towards a predictable end. The end of the session. Ironically it’s a series of certain steps towards an uncertain future. Only at the very end of the session are the players confronted by what they came for. Winning, losing and playing. Being soccer players.

Paradoxically sessions like this create a need for more sessions like this. Parents and coaches often view improvement by how well the players appear to master each separate activity. (Although they often mistake the players merely going through the motions as improvement and improvement is measured from the start of the drill to the end. “They really know where to run now!”) The players usually see it differently. They are the “Coaches problems” that the players need to navigate in order to get to the scrimmage. “Doing something to do something for the appearance of doing something.

The U.S. Soccer Federation is trying to get away from this very type of organization. They want players to bring order out of chaos and they cannot do that in this type of session. The players are presented with a completely structured picture, there are no problems to solve, decisions to be made. Their involvement is limited to pleasing the coach by doing what he or she asks. The coach is the sole source of feedback and reinforcement. The game doesn’t exist.

They also want clubs to try to develop creative, quality players. We have more then enough McDonald drones on the field. The best way to do this is FIRST, to “Unlock the game within the child.” Allow them the opportunity to explore the game on their own terms. Because few children have been exposed to a world where the adults trust them enough to do this they’ll be hesitant to take the lead at first. They need to overcome the training that our P.C. culture has ingrained in them up to now. Soccer is a game where the most important people are the players. They need opportunities to step up and take real ownership BEFORE we start to worry about teaching the correct way to do anything.

This doesn’t diminish the importance of developing a good baseline of techniques. But technique is not a strategy, it is a tactical tool. The strategy is to develop soccer players and the best way to do that is by using the small amount of team time that the players have playing soccer.  When the players truly embrace the game they’ll be open to suggestions and assistance. They’ll understand their own limitations and problems in the context of something they enjoy. Until then, mass training is giving them answers to problems they don’t have or care about.

The links at the bottom this page will give you a short look at what Michels calls “Natural Talent.” In these examples it is fully developed. Ask yourself a few questions, can you mass-produce players like this? How many sessions of Coaching Points will it take to produce this type of soccer? Or, would those sessions break the talent that the coach has been presented with?

The chances of producing players like this are very small. The chances of discovering players who have the potential are actually better. The difference is in what happens between the discovery and the end. Natural talent requires room to grow and encouragement to experiment and fail. And the success and failure comes to them on their own terms. It’s through self-discovery that they develop the necessary motivation to improve.

Ironically even the work talent gets more benefit from games then from mass drills. They learn how to play in relation to the natural talents. Everyone learns the hard lesson that there must be piano movers as well as piano players and it soon becomes apparent who is who. This is what Michels means by playing a specific position. Ultimately everyone must make a positive contribution to the team in the objective of winning the game. You can only learn your place in the team by playing in the team in a game. Drills, mass training, provides nothing in this sense.

There is no easy answer of how to help the kids prepare for the game. But there are certainly wrong answers. Assuming that getting enough mass training is beneficial is a fallacy. Every player does not have the same problems, require the same solutions or even brings the same set of expectations at any time. Yet the assumption at the heart of mass training programs is that they do. This belief only benefits the trainer by making his or her job easier. It’s a form of “Soccer in a box!” Standardized pat answers to complex questions where you can coach from a clipboard and a stopwatch.

A better answer, and also the hardest, is to let the game do the teaching. The kids are here to PLAY and not to WORK. They worked enough in school, where they’ve been helped enough to solve problems that they might only be mildly interested in. Why subject them to more adult supervised instruction towards a goal that they probably don’t share or agree with? “Do I really have to throw the ball in the air and trap it with my thigh? If I do that in a game, wouldn’t it be a hand ball?”

Kids need help to learn how to play. They are living in a ‘Play deprived world’ where opportunities for group play are very hard to find. This is the key to US Soccer’s adoption of the Dutch Vision. Help the players play better soccer. Help them to make a greater contribution to the game. Help each as an individual in the context of the game itself. Not in the context of a coach inspired drill. This approach caters to both the natural and work talents. It assumes nothing about the players and allows anything as possible. It is not driven by should and must’s but by can and tries.

No question it is also the hardest way to coach. It requires the greatest insight into the players, the game and the destination. It requires the wisdom to know the difference between what is possible and what is probable. It has a clear destination and only a feeling about the next step. The strategy is clear and the tactics, well we’re working on it. That is why I emphasize, “Get the strategy right first, and organize the game. After that you can develop your tactics, pick the details.”


Sugar and spice…

coaching girls

coaching girlsOver the last fifteen years, I’ve coached all girls teams, all boys teams and mixed teams and I’ve learned – often the hard way! – that there are some key things to remember when coaching the ‘fairer sex’.

Girls, typically, are more analytical than boys and will not accept what a coach says at face value. They will want to know why they should do something a particular way more than boys will. If you try to be dictatorial, girls will simply switch off whereas boys may accept what you say because you’re ‘the boss’.

Team unity is more important to girls than boys. So if you coach girls you have to make sure that you give more or less equal playing time to everyone in the squad, regardless of their ability, even in the most important games. If you don’t, the girls won’t thank you if they win but they will remember that you were ‘unfair’ to their friends.

Also, a girls’ coach has to be constantly on the lookout for the emergence of little cliques. Small groups within teams are always damaging whether you coach boys or girls but they can permanently split a girls team in a matter of days. If you coach girls, listen carefully to their conversations and watch how they interact with each other

Girls usually place more emphasis on ‘fair play’ than boys who are more likely to bend the rules. So girls’ matches are often more pleasant, stress-free event…as long as you can keep their parents under control.

Boys are more likely than girls to blame outside factors (the referee, the weather, the coach) if they lose whereas individual female players will often blame themselves for a poor team performance, even if it is unjustified. So you need to spend a lot of time with girls reinforcing the notion that it’s effort that counts, not results.

As far as their capacity for physical work is concerned, there is no difference between boys and girls until they reach puberty.

From the age of about ten the anaerobic capacity of boys – their ability to work hard in short bursts – quickly outstrips girls and coaches who have both boys and girls in their team should be careful to plan their coaching activities accordingly.

To sum up.

If you coach a girls’ team you have to:

  • Be democratic, not a ‘P.E. teacher’ type of coach;
  • Be aware of the relationships between players;
  • Give lots of positive encouragement;
  • Get player input: ask for suggestions and never lecture;
  • Treat every player in your squad exactly the same;
  • Plan training sessions that include lots of games and several socialising breaks.

Of course, this is a good way to coach boys too. But you can often get away with telling boys what to do and not paying much attention to their relationships.

Try doing that with girls and you won’t last very long, I assure you!

Bottom line: It’s not sexist to consider if girls need to be coached differently to boys. All you’re doing is trying to coach them as effectively as you can.

Winning! How Important Is It in Youth Sports?

By Michael A. Clark, Institute for the Study of Youth Sports, Michigan State University

The answer to this question depends upon who is responding. For the young athletes themselves, the answer evidently is, “Not very.”

When a national sample of youth, aged 10 to 18 years, were asked why they participated in sports, “to win” was not among the top ten reasons for girls and was only seventh on the list for boys.

Moreover, when these same young people were asked what they would change about sports, “less emphasis on winning” made the top ten on the list for both genders. Attitudes about the importance of winning change with the athletes’ ages.

Younger athletes are more interested in the “fairness” of their games, while older athletes become more concerned about winning. But even then, many young athletes say that they would rather play on a losing team than “sit the bench” on a winning team.Administrators and officials often emphasize participation over competition in the rules for contests and the guidelines they prepare for coaches.

Especially for younger players, rules often require equal amounts of playing time for all, while discouraging keeping scores or records. The number of programs taking this approach seems to be growing. Such programs proclaim, “Everyone is a winner!” The administrators mean this sincerely, but they often seem to have little idea of exactly how to turn the slogan into reality.

However, if coaches and parents were asked how important winning is to their child’s success in sports, many of them clearly would respond, “VERY!” Even when program directors refuse to keep game scores or won-lost records, the other adults involved (the coaches and parents) know exactly what the results are.

For them, winning in youth games is important, and so quickly it develops that “Winning isn’t everything, it’s the only thing,” as legendary football coach Vince Lombardi is supposed to have observed. Adults who believe that an accent on winning is essential to success make much of the best record or leading scorer; they hand out championship trophies and name most valuable players.

Coaches, parents and spectators who focus on winning in these terms are viewing youth sports as they likely would view adult endeavours. This thinking often results in mistaking the winning or losing of contests with the success or failure of the contestants or even with whether the athletes are good or bad people. Concentrating solely on the final score as the important outcome of games causes people to develop a very narrow definition of winning. The consequences of this are potentially damaging to young athletes.

The way out of this dangerously narrow view of winning in youth sports may lie in what Coach Lombardi actually said: “Winning isn’t everything, but striving to win is.” Vern Seefeldt, director of the Youth Sports Institute, reinforced this point when he observed, “Striving to win is the essence of sports.” By placing the emphasis on the athletes and their effort, winning is redefined in such a way that it comes within the reach of all.But how is effort defined and measured?

In part, the answer lies in observing the athletes at play. It is relatively easy to see whether young athletes are taking the competition seriously or are simply “playing the game.” The former requires a sincere effort, made by athletes who know the skills and strategies of the sport and who execute them as ably as possible within the spirit of the rules; the latter may occur at any level of play and is apparent by in the athletes’ lack of enthusiasm and effort.

Each performance must be evaluated within the context of the sport. Scoring points, lowering times or improving distances are relevant, because they imply something about the effort made. Equally important are knowing what defense the opponents are using, being able to “stick” a dismount or understanding when to ice the puck. Making a kick turn, using a scissors takedown or shooting a left-handed lay-up (and executing these moves correctly while competing) also are expressions of effort and, therefore, success. In short, making an effort to be competitive involves a complex set of tasks, which differ from sport to sport.

Moreover, it is obvious when athletes are failing to put forth the proper effort to make each minute of a contest competitive. “Games” often are referred to as “contests,” and at some time, every coach, player or spectator has been involved in games that have ceased to be contests. When this happens, everyone “loses.” The clues are many and varied: the players appear to be “going through the motions”, coaches cease to worry about strategies, officials make strange decisions or “no-calls”, spectators lose interest and leave or begin socializing. But most importantly, as Seefeldt observed, “playing a game as if you don’t care (with a lethargic effort) takes all the fun out of sports.” When the games are no longer contests, playing them ceases to be fun. The players mock “winning” such games, for they sense how hollow victory is in such situations.The challenge is for the adults associated with youth sports to redefine winning in terms of effort and to restructure play to promote effort. Some potential changes lie in:

Creating balanced competitions so that outcomes are in doubt.
Helping players set achievable, individual goals.
Teaching athletes to measure their success in terms of attaining such goals.
Celebrating with and rewarding players who reach their goals.

The first point focuses on the motivation of young athletes. Generally, young athletes want competitions to be fair and for the outcome to be in question. If these conditions are met, they will make a maximum effort. Otherwise, they are likely to spend their time complaining about how unbalanced the teams are or how unfair the game is. It is adults who “stack” teams and want to win by lopsided scores; young athletes tell researchers that fairness is the essence of the games they play.

Meaningful and attainable goals are essential to success in any activity, but never more so than in youth sports. Children should have clearly defined goals to work for and learn, and they deserve to be intimately involved in establishing these goals. Individual goals are much more effective than group or team goals. They allow each athlete to know exactly what needs to be accomplished.

With individual goals clearly defined, athletes should expect to have their efforts measured against advancement towards these goals. Reaching these goals can only be accomplished through learning and executing the essentials of the sport. Thus, the goals become the means of measuring effort; did the athletes make the kind of effort in each practice and competition that moved them closer to achieving their stated goals, or was the effort inconsistent, weak or lackluster? If a player’s effort was aimed at achieving the goals, then the performance was a success, no matter what the score of the competition.

Finally, when the previously determined goals are reached, the athlete’s achievement should be recognized and honored. In addition to motivating the athlete, this acknowledges the importance of striving to meet the goals, to be competitive, to make the effort.

Making the effort is within the reach of any athlete and is appropriate for all athletes.

Consequently, it constitutes a definition of winning that can be applied to all situations. Adults who use it will go far toward ensuring that young athletes have positive experiences.In this context, the proper questions for adults to ask are not “Did you win?” or “How many points did you score?” Rather coaches and parents should want to know “Did you give your best effort?” or “Did you do something better than you previously could?” Young athletes often can answer “Yes” to these questions, even when the scoreboard stands against them.

This redefinition of winning makes it possible to accommodate a variety of views of youth sports. The most vocal critics of competition in youth sports are the able to see the benefits of making it possible for all athletes to become winners. The staunchest advocates of highly competitive sports generally will recognize the value of setting goals and weighing performance in terms of effort toward reaching the goals.The result of defining “winning” in terms of effort rather than outcome is to make youth sports more humane, meaningful, satisfying and enjoyable.

In this way, the correct answer to the question “How important is winning?” becomes “VERY!” Striving to win and giving one’s best effort are objectives that every coach, player, parent or adult can, and should, support.


A game for your players’ parents!

If you want success as a coach you have to make sure all the parts go together. One of the most important parts is your parents. They have the ability to make or break your season. You not only need them on your side, you need them to support and help your players at the side of the pitch.

One of the ways I do this is to get them on the pitch and get your players on the side and play a game with your players shouting at their parents. It’s a good bonding exercise and a good way to show parents how they must be positive not negative towards the players.

Call a meeting of your players’ parents and tell them to bring their trainers. Start by laying down the laws for behaviour at matches – this is one of the most important things you will do. Parents like discipline and guidance.

End the meeting by making the parents play a short match.

Tell the parents to sort themselves into two teams and get your players to stand on the sideline and scream and shout at them like parents do at matches. The children will love doing this.

Get them to play a short game – 5 minutes each way – with the children shouting from the sidelines.

Add some confusion yourself by shouting “CLEAR IT” or “SHOOT!”

After the game ask them what they could hear from the sidelines. Most will say “it was too difficult to listen when I was trying to concentrate”. Then ask them what they think their own children hear. They should see that reacting to situations is hard enough without being shouted at.

For the parents who did hear what was said – often what you the coach shouted – ask them if this instruction or direction helped them.

The only thing that yelling directions or instructions to a player accomplishes is to distract them from their focus.

By showing the grown ups how it feels to be a player they should realise that shouting at them is not a positive thing. Some parents will still yell their heads off, but they have been taught a lesson in using positive language and the majority will do so.

Sports Training – How Much is Too Much?

By Lyle Micheli, M.D.

reproduced by permission of the Mass Youth Soccer Association

Kids are starting sports earlier and training harder. Incentives to win are growing, sometimes literally – I’ve seen trophies almost bigger than the little athletes who’ve won them! With higher stakes have come pressures to perform better by being fitter and more skilled. Usually, this is achieved through repetition, repetition, repetition – whether it is serving a tennis ball, pitching a baseball, or performing a figure-skating double axel.

In kids’ sports programs, fitness and skill development have to be balanced with the need to avoid overtraining. Overtraining is when the athlete is required to do too much – either physically or mentally, or both.

Parents need to be sensitive to changes in performance and attitude that suggest their kids are being pushed too hard. Such changes may be precursors of physical injury.

Signs of overtraining
– Slower times in distance sports such as running, cycling, and swimming
– Deterioration in execution of sports plays or routines such as those performed in figure skating and gymnastics
– Decreased ability to achieve training goals
– Lack of motivation to practice
– Getting tired easily
– Irritability and unwillingness to cooperate with teammates

Unfortunately, the tendency when a parent or coach is confronted with signs of overtraining is to push the child harder. But if overtraining is the culprit, any increase in training will only worsen the situation.

And as I have suggested, training too much may eventually lead to overuse injuries in which actual damage to the bones and soft tissues occurs because the body can’t recover from the repetitive physical demands placed on it by sport activity.

This raises an important question: How much is too much? Not a great deal of hard data is available on this subject. That’s because to find out exactly how much training is safe, we’d have to take large groups of kids and put them through grueling sports drills and wait there with our clipboards for them to collapse in pain. I don’t think we could find too many parents who’d be willing to turn over their kids for such tests! In the absence of data obtained from clinical studies, we need to formulate our guidelines based on observations made over the years by coaches and sports scientists.

How long can kids train?
As a general rule, children shouldn’t train for more than 18-20 hours a week. If a child is engaged in elite competition there may be pressures to train for longer – especially in the lead-up to a major event. Anytime a child trains for longer than this recommended length of time she must be monitored by a qualified sports doctor with expertise in young athletes. This is to make sure abnormalities in growth or maturation do not occur. Any joint pain lasting more than two weeks is justification for a visit to the sports doctor.

It’s also important to ensure restrictions against excessive sports activity are not exceeded. For instance, young baseball pitchers in America are not allowed to pitch more than seven innings a week. While this restriction is mostly adhered to in the game setting, it is pointless if kids are pressured by their coaches to throw excessively during practices (parents, too, need to remember that going to the park with their kid to “throw a few” needs to be counted as part of the number of pitches he makes).

In general, young baseball players shouldn’t perform more than 300 “skilled throws” a week; any more than this and the risk of injury dramatically increases.

How much of an increase in training is safe?
Increasing the frequency, duration, or intensity of training too quickly is one of the main causes of injury. To prevent injuries caused by too-rapid increases in training, I am a strong believer in athletes following the “ten-percent rule.” The rule refers to the amount a young athlete’s training can be increased every week without risking injury. In other words, a child running 20 minutes at a time four times a week can probably safely run 22 minutes four times a week the week after, an increase of ten percent.

Most of the injuries I see in my clinic are the product of violations of the ten percent rule, when young athletes have their training regimen increased “too much, too soon.”

“Too much too soon” scenarios
The football player, who, after a summer of inactivity, goes straight into a fall pre-season training camp.
The swimmer who normally trains at 5000 yards per day but then is asked to swim 8000 yards a day for three consecutive days.
The dancer who does 12 hours of classes per week and then suddenly is training six hours per day, six days a week at a summer dance program.
The gymnast, who, in the weeks before a major event, doubles her training time.

How hard should kids train?
When young athletes are growing the emphasis should be on developing athletic technique. Although power or speed are important qualities in sports, stressing them to children at the expense of technique can lead to injuries. Once good technique is mastered, power and speed can be introduced.

It is important for you to safeguard your children against being overtrained. The danger of this happening is especially acute if your child is an elite athlete or one engaged in a very competitive sports environment. Perhaps the most effective measure any parent can take is to make sure his child’s coach is certified. Another is to look out for the signs of overtraining, as described above, as well as the early signs of injuries themselves. A strength training program is an important component of any injury prevention program for athletes – kids included.

In many cases, I believe, kids drop out of sports because of low-grade pain that is actually the early stage of an overuse injury. The pain is never diagnosed as an early-stage overuse injury because the child simply quits the program. What this may do is prejudice a child against physical activity and exercise for life. The same is true for mental stress in sports.

Given the state of fitness in this country, overtraining children has the opposite effect of what we want, which is to instill in our young people a love of exercise that will stay with them through life, and inspire them to stay fit and healthy long after their youth sports days are done.

Dr. Micheli co-founded and is director of the world’s first sports medicine clinic for children, located at Boston Children’s Hospital. He is also the chairperson of the Massachusetts Governor’s Committee on Physical Fitness and Sports, and a past president of the American College of Sports Medicine.

Soccer team rules

The following are some suggested rules for young soccer players, taken from the footy4kids soccer coaching philosophy and codes of conduct.

Any such rules should be discussed and agreed before the season starts, preferably at a pre-season meeting.

  • Play according to the laws and spirit of the game.
  • Be on time and be prepared for matches and training sessions.
  • Display self-control in all situations. Never use foul or abusive language – before, during or after a game or training session.
  • Train and play to the best of your ability, have a positive attitude, and encourage others to do the same.
  • Respect the opposition. Treat them as you would like them to treat you.
  • Respect the referee. Never dispute his or her decisions. They are only human and they make mistakes, just like you.
  • Turn up for training and matches in appropriate and clean clothing.
  • Wear the right sort of footwear (studded boots). Note: we recommend against the use of blades on health and safety grounds.
  • Always wear shinpads.
  • Clean your own boots/trainers!