As I noted in a prior post, I think over-emphasizing the pass at young ages can restrict development of a soccer player. Kids at young ages need to have time with the ball. Opportunities to create must be allowed. If we over-emphasize the pass, kids will lose the opportunities and time to create with the ball, especially in “competitive” formats (i.e., games) that are necessary to build confidence with the ball.
At the same time, I am in love with the possession game and encourage my players to make shorter passes with the ball on the ground rather than longer balls. However, even then, I am working hard to allow the boys time on the ball and not to stifle their creativity.
Former US Youth technical director, Claudio Reyna, says we focus too much on the result of weekly games — that they are “do or die.” He continued,
At Barcelona, they are about educating players, and winning takes care of itself. I believe it makes an impact when players can develop in a calm and proper environment, not being judged on whether you win games all the time. They are just looking for players with soccer brains.
When I reviewed the curriculum for the new US Youth Coaching Paradigm, it started de-emphasizing dribbling at age 7. That is too young. I included this quote from a trainer at La Masia, Barcelona’s renown youth training academy:
“Their (Barcelona) Academy coach Carlos Rexach reveals … ‘Above all what we are after is a boy who is good with the ball and then we hope he becomes strong physically. Other academies tend to look for athletes they can turn into footballers. Most coaches, when they see a kid who dribbles a lot they tell him to stop and pass the ball. Here (Barcelona) they do the opposite. We tell them to continue so that they get even better at dribbling. It’s only when the kid develops that we start teaching them the passing game.'” (Arsenal: The Making of a Modern Superclub, Page 68).
One of the, if not the, most successful youth academy in England is near Newcastle. The Wallsend junior football club has produced 67 professional players, five of whom have represented their country. The current club president, Peter Kirkley, who has been with the program for 40 years, noted that the junior club was not formed to create professional players but to “give local lads and lasses a game of football, help them grow and love the sport.” The club emphasizes punctuality, politeness, and discipline. And, what they teach has been referred to as the Wallsend Way — love of the ball.
Rather than focus on kick and rush, the club emphasizes adventure and skill. Kirkley had this to say about the current teaching model at other academies:
“I was involved in Newcastle’s youth set-up for years, and I don’t think any kid they signed at eight has ever made it through to 16, never mind the first team. I go to academy matches and all I hear from the coaches is ‘pass, pass, pass’. I long to hear someone say: ‘go on son, take him on.’
My worry is that academies are producing automatons. That’s why they come here and get our lads later. They need players who are still in love with the game. Who have a bit of imagination. That’s what we do. We don’t manufacture pros. We help people love the game.”
I love his comments about helping kids love the game. I think the early ages, up to early teens, are the best times for kids to learn to “love the ball.” They pick up things quickly at that age. I am now having to go back and re-focus on dribbling with a son who I overemphasized passing. I can now see the beauty of the US Youth setup – 3v3, then 4v4, then 6v6…11v11. The idea is to give kids touches on the ball. But, training and games are not enough.
With some kids, I have to remind them to take the 1v1 opportunities. Whatever quality that a player can make on a pass in front of the defense is magnified if that player, rather than passing at the first sign of pressure, beats a defender and then serves a ball to the teammate. By that time, covering defenders are required to move to the attacker creating gaps in the defensive line. I had the luxury of coaching a girl (Macy Chilton) that excelled at 1v1 match-ups and, as a result, lead our squad in assists. While many people see her obvious talent at goal scoring, her ability to beat defenders opens defenses creating opportunities for her teammates to score with less pressure.
Just imagine: Attacker with ball makes pass in front of defensive line. The quality (depth, pace, angle, height) of the pass must be perfect. Contrast that scenario with one where the attacker beats the marking defender, getting behind the defense, then delivers a pass. The danger to the defending team in the latter example is heightened; the quality of the service by the attacker usually requires less precision (as it did before the defensive line) as openings have been created by the defense to cover the beat defender. Keith Barrow, Nederland HS girls soccer coach, reminded me that “soccer is all about the 1v1 situations.” It is math – if your player beats their player, that is one less defender in front of the goal.
So, while we teach and encourage players to play short, keep the ball on the ground, use 2v1 passing, etc., let’s also remember to tell players to “go on son (or daughter), take him on.”
Quotes form Kirkley taken from The Daily Telegraph, 26 Oct. 2011, No End in Sight for Wallsend Production Line. Quotes from Claudio Reyna were taken from The New York Times, May 26, 2011, La Masia, a Model for Cultivating Soccer Players.