Tag Archives: teaching

Sebastian Giraldo: Developing Creativity in Youth Soccer Players: Three Concepts from Research

“I do everything through instinct, I play like a child … I think about myself on a small field, or in the street, I see myself with the ball in the same way as I am now. I have not changed at all. You must remember soccer is a game to have fun and you play for that. I don’t plan or anticipate my play.”- Lionel Messi

The concept of fostering creativity in youth players is one of the hot topics in soccer development research (and something I am very passionate about).  This is not surprising considering we always hear coaches/trainers talking about the importance of having creative players that can break down a game or hear parents/spectators go crazy after a player demonstrates a flash of on-field brilliance. Soccer is an open skill sport that requires rapid, constant decision-making and one that values creativity (just look at who we consider to be the world’s best: Neymar, Ronaldo, Messi).

There is an abundance of information (both academic and non-academic) on developing creativity in soccer players. For the purpose of this blog, I will focus on three main concepts that I feel are important to comprehend in order to be more in tune with the notion of developing creative players.

1. Commonly misunderstood ideas regarding creativity

Let us first debunk the idea that soccer programs can take a player and make them creative. As a soccer professional, I hear daily claims about how Superstar Soccer (fictional program of course) can make your child a creative player with proper training. This rhetoric is incorrect and very misleading to the general soccer audience. Players are individuals and every individual is going to play the game differently. We must accept that some players will be amazingly creative players and others will not. Does this mean that some players will not be creative? Absolutely not. Just like other soccer competencies, players will fall on a spectrum of creativity, some very creative and others not very creative at all. If someone had actually identified and mastered how to constantly produce creative players, that person would be a billionaire and a god in the soccer world (note: It is hard to believe, but there are even some Brazilian players who are not very creative). However, through research, we have come to understand certain parameters that can foster creativity in players. This is important: we can foster creativity in players but we cannot create it. That is a fundamental difference and one that should not be overlooked.

In soccer, as in research, we run into the common problem of how to define creativity. Let us agree to not lose sleep over this. Studies in creativity are multi-disciplinary. Information and theories we have regarding creativity intersect many fields including behavioral, cognitive, developmental, economic, personality, evolutionary, and social perspectives (for the sake of brevity, I only provided a few). This means that creativity is complex and even experts have a difficult time staying updated on current trends. What we can take from these disciplines is ideas and input on how to foster creativity in soccer players. I view creativity in soccer not too differently than I view creativity within our soccer organization. Creativity for me is the ability to adapt and provide innovative solutions to newly emergent problems. On a soccer field, this translates to a player’s ability to find solutions to the multitude of problems presented throughout the game. We label players creative if in this circumstance they are able to present an unexpected, innovative solution to the problem. Let us use this definition for creativity in soccer players so we have a mutual baseline for our conversation (note: it is completely acceptable and valid to have another definition for creativity in soccer players).

2.  Environment is probably the most important key to developing and fostering creativity 

So this leads us to the most important concept in developing creativity in youth soccer players. ENVIRONMENT ENVIROMENT ENVIRONMENT. We need to completely step away from the authoritative, autocratic style of teaching the game. U.S. Soccer is well on its way to establishing a comprehensive Socratic, guided-discovery approach to teaching the game. Why such a drastic change in the way we teach the game? Because we want to make our youth players decision makers. Research is clear in that elite players in comparison to non-elite players have the ability to make quicker, more successful decisions on the field. We cannot develop these types of players if we are spoon feeding them what they can and cannot do on the field. One of the beauties of the game is that there are really no right or wrong decisions on the field. There are some decisions that in given situations might be better than others, but when you get down to it there is no right or wrong decisions on the field. An example that we like to use at GEF is the idea of playing a pass across the mouth of your own goal.  The most common instruction from coaches/trainers at the youth level is to tell their player not to play that pass because it is dangerous and you can get potentially scored on. Our perspective at GEF is that players must play that pass in order to understand situationally when that is an appropriate pass. This goes back to the earlier point that there is not really a right and wrong decision here. Rather in some situations, it is perfectly acceptable to play a pass in front of goal and in other situations it is not. However, we must understand that the simple command of telling players not to play that pass at the youth level can have significant impact on their ability to play the game openly and creatively. Instead of telling players what they should do, as soccer professionals, we should be asking why they made their decision and what other possible decisions could have been made. Simply, force players to think critically about their decisions. The elite trainers know how to ask the right questions to shape a better understanding of the game for the player.

This approach to teaching the game is not novel and has been used in many contexts for several years (most notably in higher education). There is a lot of learning theory that pervades this school of teaching soccer. We want the training and playing field to be a positive environment where players are nurtured, challenged, guided, and most importantly forced to make decisions. This might sound simple but in the face of club pressure and winning, these simple ideas are often sacrificed. This is why we need to spread knowledge on development research so the general soccer audience understands that more immediate goals that might seem important in the short-term like winning can actually inhibit the development of elite players. Creative players do not just happen magically, they are a product of the environment in which they play and train.

3. The role of play in creativity development

This leads to probably the most enlightening discovery of my doctoral education (thanks to my dear friend Dr. Matthew Bowers-University of Texas Austin). The idea of play and how it can be the missing link to producing creative, elite soccer players in the United States. This ties in directly to the importance of environment discussed in the previous section. Play is commonly defined as “activity engaged in for enjoyment and recreation, especially for children” (Merriam-Webster).  This definition itself devalues the importance play can have on human development by associating it solely with fun and leisure (and also fails to capture the importance of play for adults). In reality, we have come to understood that play can have vast benefits in human development. Play has been linked to providing benefits in many different areas of a human’s life such as happiness, abstract thinking and problem solving, self-confidence, cooperation/sharing, conflict resolution, motor skills, concentration/focus, communication skills, and learning and knowledge acquisition (I could have continued with the benefits but I think we get the point).  Repeat after me: while we play, we learn. When learning is fun, there are myriad benefits gained for the individual.

Let us think of soccer as a game (how we saw it as kids), free of the club pressures of winning, management training etc. Remember how free we felt playing the game in the streets or in our backyard. There was little to no pressure from the traditional form of a yelling coach or parent and we explored certain skills, failed and tried again. There was no person telling us what was right or wrong, rather we were exploring and learning through our own initiative. No one was telling us the rules or dictating parameters so our minds were free to try whatever we wanted. The game itself became a learning system. Now compare that experience to the rigid, structured format of U.S. youth soccer. Are players told what to do? Are they allowed to fail? How many times are they allowed to fail before there is a consequence? Who is guiding the exploration? Just focusing on these few questions, we realize that youth soccer is vastly different than the unstructured, free play that occurs in the backyard. These differences are probably a good starting point for understanding why American developed players are so different compared to other players around the world. To be fair, the dichotomy I presented between the unstructured and structured setting is probably a bit exaggerated as there are also pressures in playing pick up and backyard soccer (e.g., peer pressure). But even in the most intense of pick up settings, creativity is valued and celebrated.

All over the world players primarily learn the game at the youth levels through unstructured play. Pick up games on the street, playing on a neighborhood dirt field, playing 1 vs. 1 against a sibling. What does this kind of play allow? It affords players the ability to explore through their own means. Discover what works and what does not. Explore what kind of player they are. Fail, fail, fail, and then try again. This is an environment that is conducive to producing players that are problem solvers. Remember how we defined creativity earlier. Creativity in soccer is the ability to adapt and solve newly emergent problems. The question is are we producing players in the U.S. that have been afforded the opportunity to develop as problem solvers? I would generally say that the answer to this is no. And one of the main reasons is that we do not appropriately value unstructured play as a major component of development. Play theory has obvious implications for soccer development that need to be understood and explored more thoroughly by soccer professionals. We must understand why there are changes being made to the way soccer is taught and not simply be content with conforming to the changes.

Creativity is a fascinating subject both within soccer and in our daily existence. I hope my thoughts generate discussion and encourage individuals to examine how we can improve our soccer development. I would like to leave a link to The Institute of Play which is leading the way in finding novel applications to using play and games to further learning in many different sectors. Remember that soccer is a game and inherently a learning  system. Let the kids play!!!!


Sebastian Giraldo

Co-Owner Giraldo Elite Futbol


Email: giraldoelitefutbol@gmail.com

Teaching the Laws of the Game in Your Sessions/Practices

The Laws of the Game have been in place in some for or fashion for over 150 years. Taking root in the Sheffield Rules of Football in 1858, the Football Association (F.A.) approved the Laws of the Game in 1863.  Association Football was said to begin at this point, while clubs that did not incorporate the rules played what we refer to as rugby.  Minus a few minute changes, they have remained largely the same since 1925.  As coaches, board members, professional trainers, referees, etc., we can help players, even at a young age, learn the Laws of the Game while we teach the game.  I have taught and coached the game from 4 year olds on up.  I find that even at the early ages, there are opportunities to teach the Laws of the Game.  I was impressed when reading the presentation from US Youth Soccer on how to Write a Training Session.  On the 5th page, it states:  “In planning the training session be sure to account for the modified rules to the Laws of the Game for the age group. During a match (scrimmage) in a session, enforce the rules of play. The coach is on the front line of teaching the rules to the players.”  Here is the link for the presentation.

For example, if you are coaching a 3v3 team of U6s, you can teach a few restarts.  My experience at that age is that the ball is constantly out of play and in need of restarting.  Too much of the time, game time for the players is sacrificed because the players have not been adequately taught how to restart the game.  They can understand it if we give them a chance.  A few minutes at practice each time, blending in to what your are already doing, and they can learn them (you will still have to remind them, but reminding is much easier than stopping their saturday match to position and tell them how to do it).  I also think it is important to use the proper language from the beginning: a goal kick, a kickoff, a corner kick, a throw in.   Believe it or not, they are dealing with much more difficult concepts on a daily basis.  For example, teach them what a Touch Line is — it is a “Touch Line” because you get to “touch” the ball with your fingers to put it back in play over the line.

But, even as they age, we can incorporate Laws of the Game in our sessions.  In a crossing session, you could include offsides.  To ease into the concept, try this — teach the players that “they are never offside as long as they are behind the ball.”  I find that statement to transfer to them easily and it teaches an important offside rule.  Have some fun with it — place different body parts for the off the ball player beyond the ball and ask the kids if it is offside.  They love it when you use your behind (answer is “yes, because you can use it to play the ball!”).  They will struggle with the timing of offside – I just keep it simple:  “It is not where you receive the ball that makes you offside, it is where you are when the ball is played).”

For direct and indirect kicks, in the scrimmage portion of your session, occasionally stop the game and restart with an indirect kick (they seem to get direct, although we cover it anyway).  I like to go over the hand signals on that day for indirect — tell them why the referee has his arm pointing to the sky and when it will come down.  My experience is that players generally struggle with indirect kicks.  Covering it in practice will remove the players from an otherwise stressful situation where, in the middle of the game, they are being screamed at from their coaches, the sidelines, etc.  Teaching a simple two player restart for indirects will take 10 minutes.  It can blend into your session during the scrimmage.

The same is true for kickoffs.  Goal kicks.  Throw ins.  These are easy fixes and part of the game.  Dedicating a few minutes in a scrimmage where you restart the game a certain way for the day is a great way of doing it.  Penalty kicks are great fun to end a session – but, if we do them, we should teach them the rules.  Where can the goalies stand?  How many people can be in the penalty area?  What is the penalty area (does it include the half circle?)  Why is it called the penalty area? When can players enter the area?  These are easy questions that many of us take for granted but, I would guess, if you asked your players, they may not know the answers.

Just as it is important to cover restarts as laws of the game, we can spend time on other laws.  I asked some U9 and U10s the other day what part of my arm can I touch the ball with?  Again, it was part of a scrimmage where a boy had lifted his elbow and played the ball.  So, we paused for 1 minute, used my arm, and pointed to areas to see what the boys thought.  They all agreed I could not use my hands.  But, the higher up my arm, the more disagreements there were.  Roughly half of them thought that they could use their bicep area.  Only half thought that they could use their shoulder. So, in 60 seconds, using my arm as a model, we covered the rule.  So, it was material relevant to the game and helpful to them.  And now they know that they can use their shoulder!  

For charging, are we teaching them how to properly use their body in defense?  At young ages, they all want to use their hands and arms.  While we tell them no, are we substituting the negative with a positive?  We could ask, “what part of your body can you use to touch the other player?”  The same with slide tackles.  Now that I work with mostly boys, they are always on the ground.  I personally do not like it.  I do not think they know how to slide properly and, similarly, many of the boys do not know how to avoid the tackle.  We could reinforce the rule at an early age — playing the ball is no excuse for a reckless challenge.

Similarly, we can cover dissent, language, dangerous play, etc.  In any event, while each session should not be a lecture on the Laws of the Game, there are opportunities to educate the players on them during the course of your session.

Everyone Should have Written Session Plans – Even Ex-Professional Players!

I Played Professional/Collegiate Soccer so Why should I Plan a Session?   

As a growing soccer nation, we are starting to realize the rewards of soccer experience with our youth coaches.  Now we have a generation of parents who grew up playing the game, teaching it to the next generation.  For many, they have the benefit of years of instruction, either professional or voluntary, but years nonetheless.

This is nothing new to other sports.  Our youth baseball coaches for years have been replicating their time as youth; replicating practice models, ideas for instruction, teaching methods, etc.   While there is no dearth of dads who “know the game” of baseball, if you ask professional coaches in the field they will tell you those volunteers are a real stumbling block to them.  Sometimes overconfidence is a bad thing….Back to soccer. (The education opportunities and requirements in soccer, as compared to baseball, set the sport apart at the youth levels).

If you never played, if you always played, you need to plan your session in writing.   Having a plan means the obvious – you planned.   “Thinking and writing are inextricably bound together.” (USYSA).  It is not enough to “plan it in your head.”  You need to put pencil to paper – draw a diagram for your games.  Write the questions you will ask.  Make a list of the equipment that you will need (including cones, jerseys, goals, etc.)  Lay out that equipment neatly prior to your session.  Consider how it looks to a parent and players for the trainer to arrive after the players with no equipment?  Consider the alternative — how might it look to the parents (and to the players) if, upon arrival, a session is laid out and you are there waiting on them?  And this is from Sam Snow, tuck your shirts in and remove your sunglasses!

If you are a parent volunteer, you have an advantage of intimacy with your players that professional trainers do not necessarily enjoy – planning ahead, taking full advantage of that knowledge, will make your session that much better.  Also, as you may lack the playing experience, writing and drawing out a session will help you visualize the activities you intend to use.

As a former professional or college athlete, planning ahead helps you to take advantage of all the prior experience, whether in games or practices sessions (and some of you can number the sessions in your life in the 1000s) in which you participated.   Can you think of some training or experience that you had in soccer that would be helpful to the players in your session that day?

Here is what Justin Neese, a former collegiate player and holder of an A coaching license, has to say about the importance of lesson plans:

“To me, it is actually easier to have a lesson plan (or any plan) than to have none because a plan gives me a structure and I feel more able to vary/ improve when I have a solid plan to guide my overall thoughts and objectives.”

Is there a document to help me plan my sessions? YES!  At US Youth Soccer’s website, coaches should subscribe to Coaches Connection.  Once a member, you will have access to written lesson plans for all ages and all areas of practice.  Here is a link to a great document teaching you how to plan a session, considering size, age, ability, fields, etc., that is wonderful along with a downloadable template for use in planning your session.  PLEASE CHECK OUT THAT LINK.  The presentation from USYS about how to plan a session (in writing) is fantastic.

How should I organize my activities?  Lesson plans also help you build on a theme for the practice.  Rather than just doing your favorite games over and over again, you can modify them to represent certain aspects of the game, be they passing, dribbling, shooting, etc. US Youth Soccer recommends building a session based on a topic that is reinforced throughout the session.  For example, consider warming up with a game that utilizes skill and agility similar to dribbling.  Then add the technical component (what can you teach the players about dribbling today?.)  Reinforce your teaching point with a game, leading to a small-sided game, leading, ultimately, to a scrimmage.  As an added bonus (and a topic for another day), can you think of a Law of the Game you can include in the session?  Most important, teach the game.  As Brendan Rodgers says, “It’s not about training players, it’s about educating. You train dogs, not footballers.”  We need to be teaching the game.

Should I have a plan for a Day? Week? Season? Year?  Yes.  How should your sessions build from one week to another? One season to the next?  Having a curriculum with a plan for a season, the next season, etc., that is communicated to your players and their families will build confidence in you as a trainer, as a club, and help parents understand what the big picture is.  Sometimes our fans, teams, coaches, even trainers, can lose focus.  The big picture may, for some, be the game this week.  But that is not the message we should send our players, their parents, nor are they expectations we should place on our trainers.

Last Saturday, our boys’ team suffered a tough loss.  In years passed, I may have expressed some of my frustration against the boys.  I think it was because the game was more about me than it was about them.  At the end, I told the boys to keep their spirits up – that this is a long journey and, while we strive to win (soccer is a competitive sport), it is not the main agenda right now.  (This team is a U11 qualifying team for division 1).  We are working on a picture that is years away – what are we doing today to paint that picture?  I can tell you, three years from now, I doubt anyone will attach any importance to one or two or three games (or more) when they were 10 and 11.

As clubs, we need to communicate these ideas to our parents.  Giving families written copies of the curriculum is a step in the right direction (we can address that topic later).  Planning your session, in writing, is another way to communicate to our players, their parents, our trainers and other volunteers that we are interested in the “big picture.”   At Gusher United, Head Technical Director Thomas Shenton recommends giving your written plan to the team manager each session.   In any field of work, it is never a bad idea to be (and appear to be!) prepared.


Technical Manual Released by US Youth Soccer

From Sam Snow, US Youth Director of coaches, here is the Skills School Manual.  If you ever wonder what the technical teaching points to dribbling, passing, trapping, shooting, defending, here you go.  Very specific with excellent diagrams. I like to describe it this way:  “Technique” is how to do something, while focusing on “tactics” focuses on when (and why if you are a good coach) to do something.  Too often, we focus too much on the “tactic” side of soccer at young ages rather than the “technique.”  Here is an introductory quote from the manual:

During the first fourteen years of a young player’s career the coaching

emphasis must be on technique. The actual execution of a movement is

always in the realm of technique. The challenge of “when and why” to use a

movement is one of tactics. In this manual the focus is the “how to”; that is

on technique. Technique is the body’s mechanical execution to affect the

ball; for example receiving, catching, shooting, dribbling, deflecting, etc. It

is one of the four components of the game and leads to ball skill. Skill is

being able to execute a technique under the pressure of opponents in tight

space and most likely on the move. Without ball skill a player cannot

execute tactics. Some players will:

o be able to do a technique in an activity but fail to apply it as skill when

under pressure from opponents

o be competent with the ball but not outstanding

o be technical but not skillful, while others will be skillful but not


o be capable of executing some skills against one level of opponent but

not another

Players gain more trust and respect for a coach who can help them improve

their technique. The result is confident use of new skills in matches.

Motivated players spend time working on their skills. Players will appreciate

the importance and thrill of learning new techniques and refining existing

ones if the coach creates the proper training environment. Then the players

begin to equate fun with improvement.

Novice coaches often find themselves in a Catch 22 at training sessions.

They can influence young players by helping them develop techniques, but

some coaches don’t know enough about the techniques they are teaching to

offer relevant advice.

Skills School Manual  Great Manual.  Enjoy.

Instructors in white – Sam Snow (left), Gary Williamson (middle), Neal Ellis (right)