Levels of competence

How to recognise the level players are performing at and use that information to guide their development

“It’s not a question of expecting more. It’s more a question of “can he do it?” We give him a chance and either he takes it or he doesn’t. It’s in his hands.”
Johan Cruyff

“Where do we go from here?”

Every soccer team, player, coach and parent has to deal with this question sooner or later. At the heart of it is the question “what level is best?” Unfortunately, the concept of levels is usually introduced to those least prepared to deal with them.

Levels can be overt, such as a division structure for an age group or a travel player vs. a house player. Or they can be covert, a first division team in one league won’t be at the same level as a first division team from a different league and two coaches in the same division can be at different levels. But whether it is as obvious as a label or as subtle as an opinion, levels are one of the biggest problems facing coaches, children and their parents in youth soccer.

When children and their parents are first exposed to soccer, (assuming around 4 or 5 year old level) most leagues are formed on democratic principles where every child gets equal playing time and results mean nothing. This is to promote the game, encourage the children and their parents and to help find future coaches. It isn’t long before levels become apparent. Some of the children simply have better motor skills or are keener on playing the game. Others have less athletic ability or interest. The levels are subjective, based on observations of the children’s play and what is for them, the norm. The concept of levels is born.

The next stage is the “competitive results” stage. The children are now (around 6 or 7 year old level) competing in a structure where scores and standings are kept. Here an objective quality enters the picture. The level can now be quantified. But winning can be confused with mastery. Possession of a trophy can hide the inadequacies that the children and coaches have while a team that finishes in the middle of the pack can be closer to mastering a much higher level of play. Suddenly, everyone is in an environment where the success of the group is directly related to the success of the individual. One child in one moment can decide the fate of the entire team. The coach can be a “bonehead” for playing a certain child in the goal. A child can be labelled “talentless” because he isn’t successful in 1v1. On the other hand coaches can be carried to fame and adulation on the shoulders of their charges and a six year old becomes a “soccer prodigy, the future saviour of the game.” The addition of the objective criteria, winning and losing, at this stage can lead to incorrect evaluations of talent. This is especially true when the evaluators, parents and coaches, do not have much experience with the current and future possibilities for the children. “They win so they must be good” or “they lose so they must be bad” isn’t necessarily valid at this stage.

This brings the up the third stage – the move from recreational to select soccer. Now the children, parents and coaches are faced with a whole new set of expectations. For some it will be viewed as an achievement. For others it’s just another step in the journey. At this level team development can become confused with recruiting prowess.

Competitive soccer, like all competitive athletics, is most enjoyable when everyone is at, or close to, the same level for the participants. To continually play against inferior opposition or to continually face getting schooled isn’t fun. Likewise, to play with lesser talents can also de-motivate more talented players who will feel that they are being held back. When the difference in levels is too great the enjoyment of the activity and the opportunities to grow are limited.

And levels don’t stop there. They permeate every stage of soccer. Varsity and Junior Varsity, State ODP and DDP programs, starters and substitutes and at the professional level you find national team players. While each stage represents an arrival it is also a departure point for the next one. Some players and coaches will move on, some find a home and some are in over their heads. What is important for youth development is to be realistic with the expectations and to find the appropriate level. The greatest enjoyment in the game is found when the challenges just stretch the abilities. This margin is a fine line, and individual to each participant. Each player, coach and team has an optimum level. Recognizing it can be a difficult task and involves an experienced and objective point of view.

Using Levels As Guidelines For Development

Levels can assist the youth educational process by providing players, parents and coaches with a set of guidelines to help prepare for the future. These guidelines will be some of the new standards and expectations that a “step up” will require. By being aware that each stage in the journey brings a new, and possibly unique, set of problems a little preparation can help to ease the transition. “To be forewarned is to be forearmed.” Some examples:

Youth players that are moving into high school soccer find a new standard would be the incorporation of several different ages in the team. A fourteen year old ‘big fish’ in their club team might be a ‘small fish’ in the high school pond. This change has as much to do with understanding their position in the pecking order as it does in their play on the field. They go from calling the shots, to taking orders. The education for these children can involve having them practice or play up an age level or two for short periods. Very talented 12 year olds can train with 13 or 14 year olds on a regular basis. This not only helps them to adjust to the increased speed of play, but helps them to understand their limitations and lowered expectations when ‘playing over their heads.’ (The same thing can be done for high school age players making the transition to college. This select group is passing from the world of youth soccer into the adult game. By training with senior amateur teams, talented youth players begin to get a taste of the demands of the college/adult game.)

Parents can find that a change in levels can have a dramatic effect inside the family. Sibling rivalries can develop as one child has more success or gets more attention then another. Higher levels of play usually means more traveling, greater distances, fewer free week ends, spending major holidays in motels at tournaments, greater financial obligations all wrapped up in a questionable return on the investment. Often the increased time and money doesn’t bring anyone any increased enjoyment. In fact it can bring the opposite. When the expectations aren’t quickly met it doesn’t take long for the whispering to start, fingers to point and excuses to be made. A good club structure is the best way to work through these problems. Talk with parents who have already gone through the scenario or club officials like the DOC.

Coaches should be aware of and prepared for changes in the demands that they face. Two common situations that often ‘break the back’ of well meaning parent coaches are taking a rec. team into select play and moving from small sided games to a larger size in the competitive phase. In the first case the star players that carried the rec. team may become very average in this new environment. This means that going in everyone, parents, coaches and players have increased expectations only to find that they are far from being met. Also, parent coaches who enjoyed success at the rec. level will be going up against paid trainers and will be routinely out coached. This can lead to high levels of frustration and self doubt. Coaches also need to be prepared to deal with the selection process, an unavoidable part of select play. This means making hard decisions that until now were largely handled by an administrator.

Moving from 3v3 to 4v4 and 7v7 or 8v8 to 11 a side brings a new set of problems. The complexity of the game and how to organize training to meet the new demands are two areas that can take years to adjust to. The best course of action for coaches to avoid these situations is to invest time in their own education. The State level coaching courses are the best place to start. They provide a structure to hang onto and a frame of reference for the new found problems. Short of that, seek out experienced help and be patient enough, both with yourself and with the children.