Understanding Youth Player Development
Youth soccer development in the US has both benefited and suffered from its own evolution. It has not grown primarily from kids playing and experimenting in self-organized neighborhood or sandlot games. Although there have been ethnic-based youth playing in urban neighborhoods for many years, youth club soccer, as a mainstream activity, did not really begin to burgeon here until the 1970s. To compete with the traditional American sports path (i.e., through the school system) youth club soccer became highly organized even before there were youth players to fill the leagues. From its inception almost every aspect of American youth soccer’s organization and growth has been prescribed by adults. This has, in my opinion, retarded the growth and development of players and the game in the US.
One of the casualties of this process has been a failure to focus on the heart of the game itself: a game that constantly changes, the ball is always moving, with many contests, individual, group and team, all over the field. These myriad situations in each game require players to make adjustments, through decisions, to solve the problems presented in a game. Crucial elements in player development include the ability to read the game, the flow, and to adjust to unique situations. These intangible traits help great players rise above others, and are only developed over a long period of time with experience and experimentation. Player decision-making has become a casualty in the US because our focus as adults has generally been on results at each stage and not the process.
Team Organization vs. Problem Solvin
Our adult-designed youth programs have primarily focused on tangible concepts that we can categorize and measure. Unfortunately, it has created an environment that discourages young players from engaging in the very thing that will ultimately make them top-level players: their own rudimentary problem-solving. We have identified four pillars of the game that we can neatly manipulate: technical, tactical, physical, and psychological. But, by looking at development strictly through this quadrangle lens, we often stifle the creative growth of young players.
In addition, we often even misapply these four concepts by emphasizing one or two virtually to the exclusion of the others. For example, many have stated that the psychological aspect is most important primarily for coaches of professional players, who mainly function as man-managers. There is an unspoken, but inferred, notion that youth coaches are not so concerned with the psychological component of player development. Youth coaches, they say, should focus primarily on technical development and then later, tactical training. Coaches often miss the point that the pillars are not consecutive, they are concurrent. They provide a whole description of the player, no part of which is ever missing. The free-flowing nature of the game requires players to play and maneuver in an environment where all four pillars are constantly feeding and limiting each other. They do not, indeed they cannot, exist in a vacuum. While the psychological aspects of being a player at age 14 may be different from those of a 23-year-old professional player, they are every bit as interwoven with each player’s development, as is the development of a young player’s love and passion for the game.