It’s playtime!

Taking the drilling and screaming out of youth football (soccer) will make the game more enjoyable and create better players.

By Mike Woitalla, Soccer America Magazine.

Let’s take the approach so many adults bring to youth soccer to other children’s activities.

Take a bunch of 6-year-olds to the playground, but don’t let them scamper off to explore the different structures. Make them all line up and wait patiently to take turns on the monkey bars. If one of them wanders off toward the swings, scream at him.

Be sure to tell them exactly how they should climb. Yell at the slow ones to go faster. While they’re hanging from a bar, shout at them to ”grab the next bar!”

At the sandbox, don’t just let them start digging around willy-nilly. No building mounds or castles until we teach them the proper way to hold the shovel. Line them up for the shovel drill and don’t forget to yell, ”Dig, dig, dig!”

After 50 minutes of instructions on the various aspects of proper playground usage, give the kids 10 minutes to play.

Sounds ludicrous, doesn’t it? So do these scenarios, but they’re real and all too common:

A 9-year-old dribbles downfield and comes to a screeching halt because his coach doesn’t let defenders past the halfway line.

In an 8 v 8 game of 7-year-olds, two players on each team are forced by their coach to remain planted in front of their own goal. Wouldn’t want to be vulnerable to a counterattack, would we?

A 6-year-old girl who started playing soccer a couple weeks earlier dribbles the ball toward the goal while her coach moves along the sideline screaming, ”Kick it into the goal! Kick it hard! Kick it into the goal! Kick it hard!”

And I’m wondering what it would be like to have someone four times as big as I am hollering at me while I try to perform a skill that is barely within my capabilities.

One of my favourites is the ”Spread out!” scream. I hear this from coaches, directed at 6-year-olds. Apparently they haven’t noticed that these kids can barely kick the ball more than five yards, so it’s a bit unlikely that they’ll be able to exploit the flanks and whip in a cross.

Perhaps the most puzzling aspect of youth soccer is the insistence on making young players do drills instead of just letting them play small-sided games, the way Pele, Diego Maradona and Ronaldo did when they were young.

In America, children start playing organized soccer three or four years before those guys did. That’s the way it is, because in today’s world they usually can’t just go outside and play pickup soccer for hours on end. But that doesn’t mean they should have to show up at a practice and be instructed as if they haven’t left the classroom.

Besides the fact that, after obeying adults all day at school while planted in a chair, children deserve and need playtime without overbearing adult interference, children learn soccer from playing and mimicking others, not from instructions.

The Brazilian and Argentine players who delight us so much developed their skills playing without adults looking over their shoulders stifling their creative impulses and critiquing their ”mistakes.”

Said Juergen Klinsmann recently about the decline of German talent: ”Today all the youth soccer is played in organized tournaments, we don’t have kids playing in the streets any more. But it’s in street soccer where the real talent appears.”

So it would make sense for coaches to replicate the kind of soccer the Ronaldinhos of the world played when they were under 10. But there are youth coaches – lots and lots, I fear – who feel they’re being generous if they devote a third of their practice to scrimmaging. I imagine a 6-year-old Maradona would have quit the sport if his introduction to it entailed doing the drills we make our kids do instead of letting him run around trying to score.

Of all the hundreds of successful American and international players I have interviewed or researched, they have had in common the fact that they played soccer as much as they could outside of their organized leagues – in their backyard, in their house, at the local park. They did so because they had fallen in love with the game.

The chances that children will develop a passion for the game are much greater if they have a good time playing it. And I can’t imagine anyone with a soccer background will disagree that the most fun part of soccer is playing a game, with goals to score on.

And when children play mini-games they should be allowed to play as they please – explore the game and not be talked to constantly by the coach.

Above all, young children shouldn’t be discouraged from dribbling.

Expecting an under-8 team to develop a passing game is like forcing little kids to figure out Rubik’s Cube instead of letting them play with Legos.

Young kids can comprehend the concept of dribbling and they like to do it.

So they should be encouraged. After all, a look at higher levels of the game reveals what a precious skill dribbling is. We have far more good passers than good dribblers. Moreover, dribbling develops ball skills that will help players become good passers.

Fortunately, the U.S. Soccer Federation is trying to send the message to youth coaches that ”the game is the best teacher,” a favorite phrase of Manfred Schellscheidt, who contributed to U.S. Soccer’s ”Player Development Guidelines: Best Practices for Coaching Soccer in the United States.”

Schellscheidt, the head of U.S. Soccer’s U-14 boys development program, has won national titles at the pro, amateur and youth levels. Richie Williams, who played on Schellscheidt’s two McGuire Cup-winning teams before winning college and MLS titles, described Schellscheidt’s practices: ”Our training sessions were basically just playing.”

A key part of ”Guidelines” are recommendations for team sizes and goalkeeper-use at particular levels, and which rules to apply or not apply – for example, 3 v 3 games without keepers for children under-8.

”Guidelines” encourages coaches to create practice sessions that simulate pickup games, to organize less, to say less, to allow players to do more, to encourage the dribbler …

One hopes that ”Guidelines” will have an impact on the well-intentioned adults who run our youth leagues but sometimes forget that soccer for young children is playtime.

(This article originally appeared in the February 2006 issue of Soccer America Magazine.)

Push too hard, too young…

Intense training schedules. Pressure to win and be the best. Painful injuries.

Given all these factors, it’s not surprising that some athletes simply burn out on their sport. But what is shocking to many in the field are the young ages at which this is increasingly happening — sometimes as early as 9 or 10.

The scenario often goes something like this: Eager to nurture the next A-Rod or Michelle Kwan, parents enroll their 5- or 6-year-olds in a competitive sports league or program. Over the next few years, training intensifies and expands to the off-season, making practice essentially year-round. Youngsters may join more than one league or a traveling team. They may have to sacrifice other interests and give up most of the down time that allows them to just be kids.

Soon the stakes get higher because many parents and coaches play to win. Winning means recognition and that could lead to lucrative opportunities -– high school championships then college scholarships and perhaps a shot at the pros.

“Kids sports have become much more competitive,” says Dr. Jordan Metzl, medical director of the Sports Medicine Institute for Young Athletes at the Hospital for Special Surgery in New York City.

“And in general, high-level competition for young kids is not a great thing,” says Metzl, co-author of “The Young Athlete: A Sports Doctor’s Complete Guide for Parents.”

With more kids than ever in organized sports, an estimated 30 million of them up through high school, Metzl and other experts in sports medicine and youth athletics say they are increasingly concerned about the pressures put on some children to excel. Not only are these youngsters at risk for emotional burnout, they may also develop injuries that plague them for a lifetime. Some will turn to steroids or other performance-enhancing substances to try to gain an edge. And some may give up on sports -– and exercise — altogether.

‘It’s not fun anymore’
Kids with a strong internal drive may thrive on the competition. But the pressure can be too much for others, particularly grade-schoolers who aren’t as equipped to deal with the stress as older athletes.

And the goals of sports for young kids can differ dramatically from those of their parents and coaches, says youth fitness researcher Avery Faigenbaum, an associate professor of exercise science at the University of Massachusetts in Boston.

“Most children would rather play on a losing team than sit on the bench of a winning team,” he says.

When Faigenbaum asks kids who’ve quit why they’re no longer interested in sports, their typical response: “It’s not fun anymore.” They wanted to have a good time, make friends and learn something new, he says. But make the game all about hard-core training and the final score, and many kids will sideline themselves.

“They’re getting turned off of sports at a young age -– and that’s a sad tale,” says Faigenbaum.

There’s ample evidence that sports participation can have important benefits for kids, including improved physical health and emotional well-being. Hopefully, they’ll also learn life lessons in teamwork, discipline, leadership and time management. But kids can’t profit from these benefits if they’re quitting sports early on.

A new ball game
While parents may have spent much of their early childhoods riding bikes around the neighborhood, playing pick-up games of baseball or basketball with the local kids and maybe joining Little League, today’s youngsters often fall into two disparate groups: those who sit inside playing video games and those who participate in organized competitive sports like soccer, ice hockey and basketball.

A big difference today is that kids involved in sports play harder and younger than ever, says Steve Marshall, an assistant professor of epidemiology and orthopedics at the Injury Prevention Research Center at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. And with dreams of college scholarships and multi-million dollar professional contracts, the competition can get out of hand, he says.

Over-coaching – resist the urge!

by Dave Simeone – NTSSA Director of Coaching, National Staff Coach – U.S. Soccer

Reproduced by permission of

Most of the sports that are currently predominant in our culture involve the coach as an active participant. Although the coach is along the touchline, in the coaching box or on the bench the opportunity for being overly involved with the players constantly exists. These opportunities are aside from the usual timeouts or substitutions. These typical stoppages in play already contribute to many sports being coach oriented rather than player oriented. Combine the standard loud encouragement( i.e.- screaming & yelling ) with animated cheerleading and you have an excess of over – coaching.

Soccer is different than most sports. The involvement of the coach is secondary to those participating in the game: the players. While coach oriented activities ( basketball, baseball, American football ) demand, and allow for, a high degree of involvement by the coach during competitive games, soccer is different. It would be more appropriate to contend that soccer coaches do their work and prepare their teams during the week. By the time it comes to the game on Saturday morning it is up to the participants to act, make decisions, and play! It is essential that the youth soccer coach understand their role. If continuous over – involvement during the game is not the best way to assist the players then the coach has a responsibility to alter their behavior and learn to take a different tact. Sports such as baseball and American football are what we would refer to as “set up” sports. Between pitches (baseball) or plays (American football) time and opportunity exists for diagrams to be drawn or the coach to reposition an outfielder. Soccer does not allow for similar stoppages since play is continuous and fairly uninterrupted. Players must be allowed, and ultimately able, to think and make decisions on their own. They must learn to solve problems during the game. This self – sufficient type of thinking necessitates that players learn from the game and utilize any and all information that they receive and process towards finding solutions to the problems they encounter.


  • Do you find that you are hoarse and your voice is strained following a game?
  • Is the information that you give your players during half – time emotional but non-specific in terms of assisting them solve the problems they encounter?
  • Do you utilize catch phrases such as “suck it up, boys” or “no pain, no gain” in attempting to motivate youngsters?
  • Do you find that you are sweating and running just as much during the game as the players?
  • Are your pre-game, half time or post-game speeches similar to the president’s state of the union address? In addressing the players do you ramble and cause the players to wonder “What’s his/her point”?
  • Are your remarks and instructions made during the game and to players repetitive and redundant?
  • Is this information general, non-specific jargon and cheerleading altering the player’s performance?
  • Are you reluctant to allow players to make their own decisions during a game? Are you constantly barraging players with instructions during the game?
  • Do you coach in absolutes such as always or never?
  • Do you choreograph and arrange players into strict positions with instructions such as “never go out of your zone” or “defenders never cross midfield”?
  • Have you instructed players to refrain from passing the ball to certain teammates because their present level of ability is, from your adult perspective, inadequate?
  • Do you spend an excessive amount of time in practice on throw-ins, kick-offs, corner kicks or penalty kicks?
  • Are you utilizing methods of training that do not allow for players to acquire and improve technical skill, tactical decision making, physical stamina and confidence? (i.e. – dribbling through cones, standing in lines awaiting a turn)
  • Do your practices resemble games or activities that produce the same degree of movement/stimulation as a soccer game?
  • Are you attempting to improve the team’s level of fitness by minimizing the time the players have contact with the ball?
  • Do you view the game as a contest based only on fitness that leads to a preoccupation with running?
  • Are you openly emotional or upset when addressing the players to the point that they stare at you while thinking “what is he/she so disturbed about”?
  • As the coach do you have difficulty accepting a realistic approach to winning and losing? Do you believe that winning is synonymous with player development?
  • Do enjoy and have fun coaching youngsters?
  • Are you consistently aggravated and apprehensive about coaching?
  • Do the players seem to enjoy playing because of the input and involvement of you, the coach?

The games that youngsters play on Saturday mornings in their local leagues and associations should be viewed as a vehicle for learning. The same is true concerning their one, or two, days a week in practice. The acquisition of playing ability is a long-term process that begins at the ages of 5 or 6. It is unrealistic to expect youngsters at 10 or 11 years of age, and younger, to have an adult perspective on the game. Because of their maturity level youngsters are learning about the broadest parameters of play. They are at a stage where development is the priority since the acquisition of skill, elementary decision making and an appreciation and passion for soccer are founded. Young players learn, and are a product of their experiences. They learn more from their experiences ( games, activities, and the environment ) than they do from the coach. The role of the coach is to then organize and set up games and activities that the players enjoy and learn from.

Unfortunately, the majority of over-coaching occurs with youngsters who are between the ages of 5 to 11. It occurs, in part, because of the “profile” of the average parent/coach. These parent/coaches bring little practical soccer experience with them. At the same time they are learning about soccer they are learning about coaching. The availability of coaching education throughout state associations, combined with the information that is presented in the courses, simplifies coaching. Once youth coaches are exposed to this information they can assume their role with greater effectiveness While coaches are somewhat responsible to educate the parents of their players parents, in turn, should evaluate the effectiveness of the coach: is my child learning to play soccer or is the coach preoccupied with drills that only permit the players to play at soccer?

Parents should evaluate the demeanour and approach the coach takes towards games: is the coach willing to allow youngsters to play the game for themselves or is he/she absorbed with their active, but unnecessary, participation? Is the coach most concerned with making decisions for the players rather than accepting that the players must make decisions on their own? Overall, there should be uniform agreement and understanding between the parents, coaches and league or association administrators on this matter. This shared responsibility helps ensure that play remains a leisure activity with a long-term interest of player development.

REMEMBER…..Play is a key word in player development!


Over-coaching in youth soccer

What is over-coaching?

Excessive input from the coach while the players are playing in such a way that the coach’s input becomes debilitating to the player’s ability to perform to the best of their ability and stifles their development. In short, the coach is playing instead of the player, making all of their decisions for them.

Is over-coaching a problem? Does it happen frequently?
I see this as a problem. Too often, coaches (and parents) feel an undue pressure to win games and therefore over-coach the players. As a result, at game time, and during practice, there is a constant barrage of comments directed at the player, making it impossible for the players to enjoy themselves and express themselves on the field.

What are the effects on players and coaches of over-coaching, both long and short term?
Mostly, the players end up quitting. They do not want to subject themselves to this “hostile” environment. They rebel against the pressures and hyper supervision of the adults. If they do hang on, as they get older, they lack creativity in their play, or the ability to solve the games’ problems by themselves. Thus, their development is retarded and they are no longer able to meet the demands of the game at the next level.

How can a coach know if they are over-coaching?
Usually, the players give big time signals that they are not enjoying themselves. Their body posture speaks loudly towards this end. They will also be very nervous while playing, and, perhaps more telling, when faced with a difficult game situation, they are unable to meet the demands of the game. Also, they rarely will ask questions to the coach in fear that they will again be told what to do. They might stop coming to practice and games, or, need to be forced to participate.

At what age is over-coaching most prevalent? Younger players or older?
It is prevalent at all ages, but I find it mostly in the 10-14 age group. Here, they are just starting to become players, and the coach’s expectations become a bit more demanding. Too many egos get involved.

Why do coaches over-coach?
Pressure to win, or an ego that is tied in with the success of their team.

What can be done to remedy the situation?
Soccer clubs and leagues need to monitor the situation carefully and remove the coach from their responsibility if necessary. The players need to come first. We must remember that the game belongs to the players, and that the game is the best teacher.

Can you give me a concise example of a scenario when over-coaching could happen, and how that particular situation could be fixed?
During the game: Coaches sub a player whenever he or she makes a mistake and lectures them on the sidelines how to fix the problem, instead of having the player work through some of their mistakes on the field, learning as they go. The coach constantly tells out to the players what to do during the game, before they do it. Such as “shoot”, “hit it to the corner”, “take her to the corner”. Instead of coaching “after the fact” such as, “hey, do you remember the last time that you had the ball in the box, and there was only one defender between you and the goal?… well, next time you see that, try beating that defender and getting a shot on goal”. Sometimes, comments are very appropriate, but if the coach finds himself chatting constantly, they should force themselves to sit back and relax.

Motivation is more than a question of winning and losing

I once played soccer with a kid called Mark.

Mark was a very successful youth soccer player who was always one of the better players in any team he played for. Indeed, Mark represented the National schoolboy U.15 team. About one year later, however, Mark dropped out of soccer. He said that soccer had stopped being fun as he wasn’t the best player anymore. It was clear that Mark could only feel successful if he was number one and did not want to play if he could not achieve this goal.

This anecdote illustrates how important it is for coaches and/or parents to understand the ways in which their players perceive success in soccer, and the significant effects these perceptions may have on their motivation to play the game. Specifically, how hard they try in practice and during games, whether they persist when the going gets tough, and whether they practice skills that will help them get better even if they are not presently very good at them.

Research has found that for children under the age of 10 high ability is generally implied by learning, or by success at tasks they are uncertain of being able to complete. They do not judge ability with reference to performance norms or social comparisons. They can be induced to adopt another’s performance as a standard, but normally they make self-referenced rather than social norm referenced judgments of ability. For young children, when more effort is needed for success, this implies more learning which means more ability in their world. In a real sense, effort is ability for children under the age of 11!! Because young children cannot differentiate effort from ability, they do not have the cognitive ability to understand winning and losing.

If you do not believe me, go watch any U.9 game, for example, and listen to the first question a child asks as he/she comes off of the field. If it is not “Where’s my snack,” it will be “Did we win?” The child at this age understands that winning is important, loves to compete, but does not understand winning and losing in any systematic sense. Because of this, they will not feel sad until a parent or coach informs them that they lost and accompany this information with a positive or negative emotional reaction.

Around the age of 11-12 years, however, children develop the capacity to differentiate ability from effort and now understand that effort can only help their performance up to their current level of ability. For example, at this age a slow player recognizes that no matter how hard they try, they will not outrun the fastest player on the team. As a consequence of this developmental change, after the age of 11-12 individuals can choose to define success in two different ways, namely in a child like-way fashion in which improvement and effort are critical, or a more adult way in which outperforming others is stressed. These different ways of perceiving success manifest themselves in an individuals task or ego goal orientation.

Ego oriented individuals perceive success in terms of winning and outperforming others and believe that if they outperform someone with minimum effort they have demonstrated even higher an even higher level of perceived ability. These individuals believe that success is determined by ability and that cheating and deception may be acceptable behaviours if they enable them to achieve their goal of winning.

In contrast, task oriented individuals perceive success in terms of getting better and trying hard. Research has demonstrated that task oriented individuals will remain motivated even in times of adversity, for example when they are losing, as they perceive success in terms of trying hard and attempting to improve.

For example, the centre forward who misses a few chances will continue to run into space in the attacking third of the field and accept the responsibility of taking shots at goal. Ego oriented individuals who are successful are likely to engage in the same positive behaviours. However, when ego oriented individuals begin to doubt their ability they are likely to begin to withdraw effort and engage in negative behaviours to protect their perceived soccer ability.

For example, you may find ego oriented forwards drifting further and further back after they have missed a few chances. They may explain this by stating that they want to “create from the back”, or begin to blame their team-mates for their inability to get the ball to them in the attacking third of the field. Although this behaviour may seem illogical to you, it makes perfect sense to the player as they are attempting to preserve their now fragile perception of ability. After a while it could be that these ego oriented individuals who doubt their perceived ability, much like my friend Mark, choose to dropout of soccer all together as it no longer provides them the opportunity to feel successful as they do not achieve their goal of being the best compared to others!

In an activity in which performance during childhood and early adolescence is so closely linked to physiological, motor skill, cognitive and other psycho-social developmental issues, it seems sensible, to promote task orientation. By emphasizing outcome and winning (ego orientation), less mature children are likely to make inappropriate perceived ability assessments when the demonstration of high ability is restricted to those children who are currently the top performers.

For example, small children who struggle to compete against their bigger, quicker peers may choose to dropout of soccer prematurely because winning is the only way they can feel successful. In addition, task orientation should be fostered with those children who are currently the top age group performers.

Why is this important? As in other activities, children move from one soccer team to another, from one competitive level to another, and from one age group to another. When this occurs it is unlikely that the hierarchy of ability within the respective context will remain constant. In such instances, if the demonstration of ability is continually based on the comparison of ability to others, an individual’s perception of high ability may weaken which may lead to maladaptive behaviours, including, potentially, withdrawal from the game. From a motivational perspective, therefore, it is important that we as parents and coaches attempt to promote task orientation in our young players.

By providing ways of defining success other than winning, we can ensure that our players remain motivated throughout their soccer career. Research with elite level athletes has shown that these individuals are high in both ego and task orientation. They feel successful when they win and outperform their competitors, but they also appreciate the fact that this may not always be possible. There may be occasions when they lose and/or perform badly and in these times of adversity it is important that they view success in terms other than outcome if they are to remain motivated. The issue remains, however, of how to enhance the motivation of our players by encouraging the development of task orientation.

Research has shown that the parent and/or coach is critical in the active construction of a child’s perception of what is valued in the youth soccer context. Parents and coaches should critically evaluate what they do and how they do it in terms of task and ego goals.

For example, how do you define success for your players? Is it in terms of development and effort, or winning and losing? Do you design practice sessions that challenge your players which will lead to development, or do they repeat well learned skills that, although increasing the probability of winning, may delay development? How do you evaluate performance? What behaviours do you consider desirable? Do you congratulate players when they win and outperform others or when they try hard and improve? How do you react when the team wins or loses?

Persuasive evidence exists to suggest that by making certain cues, rewards, and expectations salient a parent or coach can encourage a particular goal orientation and in so doing affect the way a child perceives the soccer experience. If we are to ensure that all youth soccer players are optimally motivated coaches should, therefore, work hard to establish an environment that promotes task goals: a developmentally appropriate environment in which children are evaluated on their skill development and effort and not their comparative performance and ability.

Author: Darren C. Treasure, Ph.D.

Meeting young people’s needs through football (soccer)

by Horst Wein

During training children need a familiar and intimate atmosphere which gives them security and confidence. It’s not recommended to change either the training site or the coach/educator frequently. Returning to games which they already know (but presenting variations) is welcomed by children so long as the contents of the training sessions link with something that they already know. Children demand stable relations like in their family. Besides, the coaching should take place in a safe environment (for instance on playing fields without stones or holes), applying specific rules which assure safety and avoiding any dangerous situations.

Nothing can be understood completely if it isn’t experienced. Instead of telling children, the teacher should allow them to experiment with the task. Children need to discover on their own everything which surrounds them. This applies also to the world of sports and for soccer in particular. Instead of being instructed, children should get stimulated with simplified games and multilateral activities which are within their physical and mental capacities. Taught this way, children will develop their intelligence step by step through discovering.

Children get highly motivated when they are praised for heir efforts to master a skill or a problem. Through praise they are encouraged to try even harder. For the under 12 years old children, the teacher, coach or parent is like a mirror in which they see their capacity or incapacity. That is why educators and parents have to learn to be positive, praise the children frequently and keep critical comments to a minimum.

Children prefer to do things on their own without depending too much on the adults. They like to reach as quickly as possible independence. The coaching methods and the behaviour of the educator should consider this need, making sure that the children find frequently on their own the solutions to the problems which they present. The educator only should interfere when the problems can’t be solved by the pupils.
Putting down or collecting cones, modifying the rules of a practise game or choosing players for demonstrations or certain tasks should become also a task of the children. Their need to demonstrate responsibility can be stimulated by allowing children to choose freely for 10 minutes what to practise, how to do it, where and with whom to execute a determined skill or game.

Playing games is as vital for children as sleep: necessary for the health of their body and their mind. As children learn by playing, the central part of each training session is the practise and understanding of a simplified game. The art of coaching is to always adapt it to the children’s ability and capacity level and not vice-versa. Playing games, communicating with others and decision making are stimulating. Playing without thinking is like shooting without aiming.

Instinctively children look for communication with others. The older they are, the more they need company of a similar age. They love to be associated to a group and to identify themselves with a group or team with the aim to achieve common objectives.

Nature wants the child to be active. He is no patience to wait in queues until his turn arrives. Standing isn’t child-like. Rules of the adult games have to be modified to allow the children to play the ball more often. Games with few players assure active participation.

Generally speaking, neither the past nor the future interests the children very much. Their sense of time is completely different to that of the adults. A child lives the present moment with intensity without worrying about tomorrow or yesterday.

More variety, less boredom and fatigue. Without varying the method of presentation and the contents of soccer coaching sessions, the attention of the children usually wanders. It’s also necessary to vary the intensity of the exercises and games. Variation can also be assured through mixing the specific with the general or multilateral preparation, through switching from the global to the analytic method or from individualised training to group practise.

Children seem to live in a different world to adults. They have different problems to adults, learn in a different way and don’t think as logically as adults do. Their ideas, thoughts or reasoning are lacking coherence. Their emotional constancy depends in a high degree on their speed of biological growth. Generally they don’t know to manage their energy and therefore get tired very easily. They behave in the way they feel.

For all these reasons, adults who live and work with children, should be well-prepared in order to be able to stimulate and guide them well in their search for personality and identity.

Horst Wein has worked for many top clubs such as Real Sociedad, Leeds Utd, Sunderland, Inter Milan and is currently at the Centre of Research and Development of the Royal Spanish Football Federation. He has also written numerous books on soccer, offers regular coaching courses and recently ran a session for the English Football Association.

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.

How your players think

As any soccer coach will tell you, understanding the game of soccer is a piece of cake compared to understanding the children who play it!

But if you want to keep your children interested at practice sessions, help them to learn and keep misbehaviour to a minimum you must at least try to understand what’s going on inside their heads.

My observations lead me to believe that the main reason why children fail to learn or misbehave at soccer practice sessions (or quit soccer altogether) is that they are being coached by someone who:

a) Doesn’t understand why children want to participate in soccer or

b) Expects her children to do things they are simply not capable of doing.

Failure to take these psychological factors into account when designing practices doesn’t just result in disinterested, ‘difficult’ children. The coach will feel frustration (and could even feel angry) when their children insist on messing about when they have spent ages designing what they thought was a perfect practice session!

This often leads into a vicious circle of children trying to do things they just can’t do, the coach getting frustrated and criticising the children for not ‘concentrating’, children trying even harder to do things they can’t do, the coach getting even more frustrated, etc., etc.

This sequence usually ends with the children switching off and amusing themselves by throwing mud, kicking each other or chatting amongst themselves.

Has this ever happened to you? It has certainly happened to me a few times!

But it SHOULDN’T happen to you and it won’t – if you plan your coaching sessions with an understanding of why kids play soccer and what they can and can’t do at various ages.