Too much organization for young players?

“Reduce the Number of Players on the Field”

by Brett Thompson, Director of Coaching and Education,

This article will tackle the often-debated subject of Organized and Select Soccer for our young players.  There has been much heated debate over small sided play / games for younger age children as well as the debate around the country about eliminating select soccer for younger players.  The debate over eliminating select soccer is brought up because too much pressure from parents, parental pressure on coaches who are paid to win and coaches who feel they must win to keep their paycheck coming in.

Many players today have been playing select soccer since they were 8 or 9 years old and play as many as 60 games a year.  This does not include indoor games, which could add another 20 games per year totaling 80 games per year.  The amount of games these young children play is unbelievable when you compare it to professional teams in Europe who play no more than 64 games a year.  The professionals also never play more than 2 games per week let alone 5 games in a weekend like some of our players do at tournaments.  Where does the player development come from if players are playing 3 games a week?  How can teams practice if all they are doing is playing to survive and stay in the division they are in or trying to move up.  It becomes human instinct of survival and as a result coaches play to win rather than develop.  Over the last 20-30 years the number of players and games those players play has increased dramatically.  Even with increasing the number of games in this country, we can still not compare with the rest of the world, especially on the men’s side.  On the women’s side we have done quite well over the past decade or so however, there have been many cultural issues that have allowed American women to dominate soccer in the world.  In women’s soccer today we can see that the rest of the world is catching up even though they may not have the pure athletes as we do in this country, but they may begin to surpass us technically as well as tactically in the very near future if we are not careful.  Our women’s game today is too reliant on athletes rather than soccer players who understand how to solve problems, who know how to bend a ball, who can spin a ball (Put English on it) and players who can not get out of tight spaces.

So why is it that soccer players in Latin America are so good considering they have little to no adult supervision when they are young soccer players playing in the street or park?  As one Argentinean professional player said “I think we are too unorganized to be organized”.  Players in South America play pick up games on a regular basis without adult intervention as a result, play a craftier style or as my father said to me growing up a “cheeky game”.  These players often are better in 1 vs 1 confrontations, able to create space better for themselves and others and most of all have an absolute joy and love for the game.  These players learned how to solve the problems presented to them as they came up in games without an adult “Telling” them how to solve it.

Let’s compare soccer to basketball in this country.  Today’s basketball player has a basketball hoop in their driveway or one located at the local playground.  These players hone their skills in “Pickup Games” without adult intervention and instruction.  Players in this environment are free to experiment, take chances, try new moves, fail without retribution form an adult and their role in the game may change many times based on who they are playing with.  Just imagine if Michael Jordan, Alan Iverson, Vince Carter and Kevin Garnett had played soccer.  These players learned to love and play the game by playing pick up games first before they were thrust into the adult world of athletics.

Soccer in this country has become too organized and structured more “Adult like environment” than a “Child like environment”.  Just look at the tournament schedules on the web today; there is a tournament every single weekend within driving distance of an Ohio South city.   Players today are being scouted and identified by age 6 and 7.  Look at how many parents are paying coaches to train their child who has “Potential”, who can identify a player who is 6 or 7, where do we live in the old East Germany?  Players at age 7 and 8 are being pigeon holed into positions and placed with other children of equal athletic ability so they can win.  Players may only be moved into different positions in some cases only if the team “”Has a good lead” because the coach does not want to lose and have to face the parent who will move their child to a “Winner”.

Many parents often worry that unless they get their child into select (Competitive) soccer early that they will not succeed.  Succeed at what and why do this?  Maybe it is because today many parents see the Brass Ring, that college scholarship? Maybe it is the fact that they played at a high level and they feel that their child should get an early start to ensure they will be a better soccer player or athlete than they were?

For our players to grow into soccer players today we must allow them to play different positions allow them to have successes and have failures (without retribution).  Player’s grow, mature and comprehend of the game grow at different rates.  Their understating of soccer and physical size can change in the span of 6 to 12 months.  In is inconceivable to me that a coach or parent would try to identify the player who has potential by the age of 10.

We must change the way we are teaching the game in this country today.  We talk a good game about developing players while we spend most of our time finding and identifying those players who may be bigger, stronger and faster so we can turn them into “Elite Athletes” at camps that parents are willing to pay up to $200 a month for 7 year olds.  It is my opinion that we need to slow down on putting players into competitive environments too early.  Since I arrived last October I have had several conversations with coaches who want me to help them develop a style of play or help with a formation because they are playing 11 vs 11 at aged 9 and they are giving up too many goals.  Maybe just maybe the answer is not what formation or style of play they have but maybe the field is too big and it becomes a game of territory or who has the strongest and fastest kids who can kick the ball hard.  Every year this country produces a “National Champion” and yet at least on the men’s side we have yet to win a World Cup.  Today’s soccer requires an athlete who has the ability to solve problems on their own quickly.  We do not need soccer players who play for coaches who treat them as if it is a Nintendo game.  We must allow our players to learn the game at the pace that is appropriate to their age and not rush things.

We as adults believe that if we provide a structured environment we can speed up the learning process and we have better soccer players on our hands.  We as adults try to put players in our Palm Pilot world while fitting them into what we believe they should do and play rather than understand the game each and every one of them plays and how they play it is nothing but an expression of their personality.

I will leave you with this thought from “Zorba the Greek by Kazantzakis” Readiness:

I remember one morning when I discovered a cocoon in the bark of a tree, just as a butterfly was making a hole in its case and preparing to come out.  I waited a while, but it was taking too long appearing and I was impatient.  I bent over and breathed on it to warm it.  I warmed it as quickly as I could and the miracle began to happen before my eyes faster than life.  The case opened, the butterfly started crawling out and I shall never forget my horror when I saw how its wings were folded and crumpled; the wretched butterfly tried with its entire whole trembling body to unfold them.  Bending over it, I tried to help with my breath in vain.  It needed to be hatched out patiently and unfolding of the wings should be a gradual process in the sun.  Now it was too late, my breath had forced the butterfly to appear all crumpled before it’s time.  It struggled desperately for few seconds but later died in the palm of my hand.  That little body is, I do believe, the greatest weight on my conscience.  For I realize today that it is a mortal sin to violate the great laws of nature.  We should not hurry, we should not be impatient, but we should confidently obey the eternal rhythm.